By Andrew Johnson/NPSL.com
Patience was the name of the game for the Muskegon Risers on Sunday.
They were playing the powerful Cleveland Soccer Club in the NPSL Midwest Region championship game, and the offense was operating efficiently.
The Risers kept the ball in the Cleveland zone for much of the game, but they couldn’t get that one shot they needed to get on the scoreboard.
Numerous shots flew over the Cleveland goal, a few more were blocked, and many shots never happened at all because Cleveland plays very tough defense, and its defenders were contesting every shot.
But the opportunity came, in the 90th minute, shortly before the end of the contest, and the heroes were two reserves who just came in as substitutions.
Theodore Maye sent a perfect floating ball in front of the Cleveland net, and Alec Becastro was there to head it in.
That lone goal, which took so long to get, was all the Risers needed to claim a 1-0 victory at Oakridge High School in Muskegon, Michigan and become the new Midwest Region champions in their first year of competition in the league.
They unseated mighty Cleveland, the Rust Belt Conference champion, which had won the region title the two prior seasons.
The Risers, 10-0-2 on the season and champions of the Great Lakes Conference, now move on to the NPSL national semifinals, which they will host next Saturday against Crossfire Redmond.
“When the ball came out to me, I just wanted to play it to a good area, hoping someone would get to it,” Maye said. “But it came off my foot right and found Alec’s head and when it went in, it was brilliant.”
Belcastro, a Pennsylvania native who played at Hope College a few seasons ago, was thrilled to be the guy who finally found the net.
“It was crazy to see it actually happen and was kind of surreal,” Belcastro said. “Theo went to play it and it looked like he was going to shape it with his right foot. I just kind of gambled and hoped the defender would play wide, which he did. Theo played a great ball, and it couldn’t have been better. I didn’t have much to do with it.”
“It was crazy,” Belcastro said. “I’ve been playing high-level soccer for the past two years, so it was pretty cool to have this moment. Every single one of these guys are so talented, and it was my pleasure.”
Risers head coach Stu Collins said the team was prepared to play patiently against Cleveland.
“We said before the game it would be a one goal game,” Collins said. “We felt like they’d absorb a lot, and they did. We had the ball all day. When they did have it, we took it back very quickly but that’s the defending they do. They’ve been here and it’s a very experienced group.”
“We had to be patient, and that was the game plan all along,” Collins said. “Just wait for the moment. As me and Alec (Belcastro) said, it’s just one moment of quality. We knew our subs would come in and impact the game.”
Unlike Friday’s semifinal game, which the Risers won over Duluth FC 5-2, Sunday’s game was a mental and physical battle played in high humidity, with few shots on goal and more than a little tension on both sides.
The Risers had a 2-1 shot advantage in the first half, but neither team was able to find the mark. Muskegon claimed the offensive momentum early, keeping Cleveland from getting its first shot until the 24th minute of the game.
The Risers increased their offensive pressure in the second half and had numerous scoring chances that didn’t pan out. One great chance came in the 76th minute, when a Muskegon shot hit the crossbar of the Cleveland goal. Another came about nine minutes later, when a Riser shot just trickled wide of the open side of the goal.
Becastro finally settled the issue with his header goal as the clock was winding down and the game was seemingly headed to overtime.
“We just set goals, and we said before the game, the most powerful thing today is our refusal,” Collins said. “We weren’t going to accept anyone coming in here and beating us. We just weren’t going to accept it. As much as it’s a dramatic line, we had it written on the board as our number one thing, ‘Til the end.”
An unsung hero in the contest was 18-year-old Daniel Morgan, the goalkeeper for the Holland Christian High School soccer team. He was pressed into action for the first time this season in Friday’s semifinal game, because the Risers regular goalkeeper, Mason Masiacz, was out with an injury.
Morgan was a little shaky on Friday, giving up two easy goals early in the game, but he was perfect on Sunday, stopping all three of Cleveland’s shots on goal and masterfully handling a few other balls that could have become trouble for Muskegon.
“He did everything that was asked of him,” Collins said. “You could hear them chirping at him and expecting a mistake, but he stood up like a man. He showed character. “
Collins said the Risers remain calm but confident headed into the national semifinals, which is unchartered territory for the team.
“It’ll be nice to have a whole week to train for one game,” Collins said. “I feel like that hasn’t happened in quite a while. We’re always humble, though. We believed in ourselves and knew what we wanted to be. We’re not arrogant. We fear no one, but we respect everyone.”
Cleveland head coach Vlad Muresan said his team was disappointed that it won’t get another shot at a league title, after losing in the semifinals the previous two seasons, but added that the future is still bright.
“We’ll be back,” Muresan said. “We won the first round with a goal in the 96th minute and today we lost with a goal in the 90th minute. Football is like this. Sometimes it goes for you and sometimes it goes against you.”
“There can only be one winner, and unfortunately today it was them,” Muresan said. “But they’re a good football team and gave us lots of problems. Good luck to them on the rest of their season, and hopefully they win the whole thing for our region.”
Photo Credit: Chris Robotham/NPSL.com