By Greg Oldfield/NPSL.com
A long travel day, a weather delay, and playing over 40 minutes down a man did not deter Apotheos FC from their quest for the NPSL National Championship. Following an 80th minute red card to defender Ebrima Dampha, the visitors from Georgia responded with goals from substitutes Anthony Sumo Jr. and Patrick Okwonko in extra time to beat West Chester United SC at Swarthmore College and advance to the league final next Saturday against Tulsa Athletic.
“We’re used to it,” Apotheos FC coach Bruno Kalonji said about his team’s extra gear despite the man disadvantage. “Too many times we were down a man and came back.”
Apotheos (6-1-3, 21 points) topped the Southeast Conference before beating Charlottestown FC, Georgia Revolution SC, Naples United, and Southern States SC to reach the National Semifinals, the last three all one-goal games. In the Southeast Conference final win over Georgia Revolution, Apotheos came back from a two-goal deficit to force extra time and win 4-3.
“That’s important for a team if you want to be a championship team,” Kalonji added. “You got to keep your head cool.”
West Chester (7-0-3, 24 points, 1st in Keystone West Conference) came out firing in the opening minutes with an early chance off a corner that led to several blocked shots in front and another good look nine minutes in that tested Apotheos goalkeeper Henry Pleitez. The visitors absorbed the early pressure and began asserting themselves in the game with decisive counter-attacks.
Apotheos’ Wilfried Kamden almost jumped on the end of a through ball in the 20th minute, but six minutes later he finally executed a quick break. Geovanni Rios ran onto a long ball from the back, got in behind the West Chester defense, and slipped a pass across the goalmouth that Kamden smashed home past Michael Sheridan for the 1-0 lead.
West Chester nearly pulled one back six minutes later off a free kick that was headed off the goal line but later found the equalizer in first-half stoppage time when Jack Jasinski jumped on the end of a free kick. August Axtman won the first challenge, and the ball fell nicely to Jasinski, who beat Pleitez from outside the six yard box.
The hosts came out in the second half on the front foot, pinning the visitors back, and the game’s intensity picked up after the first 10 minutes with Apotheos coming in on several strong challenges that earned bookings. After both sides made several changes, Jasinski had another great look off a restart in the 60th minute but was denied by a fine save from Pleitez at close range.
The chippiness from both teams continued into the 77th minute with more bookings, including Dampha’s first and one for Kalonji. But the game took a major turn three minutes later when Dampha was sent off for a second yellow following a tussle in the box awaiting a free kick. Down a man, the visitors appeared energized, creating several chances in the closing minutes. West Chester’s substitute Vincent Petrera had the winner at his foot in stoppage time, but he pushed a cross wide from the six, and the teams finished 1-1 after regulation.
Apotheos FC came out balling in extra time down a man. Plenty of back-and-forth action led to several buildups on both sides with no dangerous attacks until Sumo Jr. scored on a turnover and a brilliant cross from Rios to put the visitors up 2-1 in the 103rd minute. Just two minutes later, Apotheos emerged on the break again, this time drawing Sheridan out with a late challenge on a dangerous through ball, leading to a penalty. Okwonko stepped up and buried the ensuing penalty kick to put Apotheos up 3-1.
“I can’t explain it,” Rios said about his team’s resiliency. “We just find a way to come together.”
Rios, who assisted on the first two goals said many of the players’ flights were delayed, which meant they didn’t arrive until much later last night than expected. The Apotheos forward was also pleased with his team’s ability to counter.
“With the talent we have on this team, we can keep the ball, we can play on the counter, but we’ve been blessed this year to be very effective on the counter,” Rios continued. “It’s something we’ve worked on a lot in training.”
“We made two mistakes,” West Chester coach Blaise Santangelo said after the loss. “We gave the ball away 40 yards from goal and didn’t press it then we didn’t close at the top of the arc, and the kid hit a great ball.”
Santangelo referred to the pass that forced Sheridan into committing a foul in the box as a difficult situation caused by the quality of Apotheos. And he felt the visitors’ grit in front of their own goal may have been the difference.
“Anything that was hit to the frame, they were laying out,” Santangelo concluded. “They saved two off the line, and we missed one in the 93rd minute. We hit that, and we’re moving on. But they were a formidable opponent, and they were better than us tonight.”
Apotheos FC, in only their second season, will now return home before another journey to Tulsa in next Saturday’s NPSL National Championship.
Photo Credit: Carl Gulbish/NPSL.com