On a scorching night in Leesburg, Virginia, Northern Virginia United solidified their place at the top of the Mid-Atlantic Conference standings with a 2-1 win over Virginia Beach City FC. The win kept United level on points with FC Baltimore at the top of the table, but ahead on head-to-head goal difference against the Maryland side.
The hot temperatures were matched by a fiery start to the match, as Virginia Beach earned a penalty inside five minutes. United center back Sam Golan committed to a clumsy challenge at the edge of his own area, and the referee had no choice but to point to the spot. Up stepped Sebastian Refi, who cheekily converted with a panenka as a helpless Colin Shutler guessed the wrong way.
United responded to going behind by controlling possession in their own half, but offering little that would trouble the Beach defenders. United’s Chris Welsh had a few looks from free kicks in shooting range, but never particularly tested goalkeeper Christian Coulson in the early going. The most dangerous moments for United came from wide areas, with captain Shaka Bangura looking threatening in one-on-one battles with the Virginia Beach wide backs. The slow pace of the match due to the hot and humid night played into Virginia Beach’s favor, as they were content to allow United possession at the back and play on the counter. The most exciting moment of the first half hour came from Bangura, who attempted a bicycle kick from a near-post corner just after the half-hour mark. Other than the goal and a sprinkle of half-chances for either side, the first half ended much more quietly than it began.
The second half began much the same as the first ended, with United possession but chances coming few and far between. Some of the testiness from the opening half spilled over into the second, with United’s Ahmed Ismail and VBCFC’s Refi booked for afters off the ball just before the hour mark. Ten minutes later, United would find their equalizer. The Sky Blues were awarded a free kick on the right sideline, which was whipped in by substitute Nick Short. Center back Collin Verfurth attacked the service best, flicking the ball to the far post past Coulson to bring United level.
From there, United found another gear they had not yet reached in the match, inspired by Short’s injection of busy energy and Tommy Buono’s physical center forward play. The tie game also brought forth more robust challenges, and more off-the ball antics from both sides as the match became the high-strung battle that CroppMetcalfe Park has seen several times this season. With seven minutes to play, United completed their comeback. Chris Welsh delivered a teasing ball from a freekick on the left side of the box, and Sam Golan rose highest to power home United’s second of the night.
From there, the hard-fought war in midfield grew more intense as Virginia Beach pushed for a leveller, and United attempted to stave off any chances for the visitors to keep their home playoff hopes on track. Shutler dealt neatly with several crosses that came into the United box, and the organized Sky Blue back four saw out the final minutes to earn a deserved three points at home against a feisty Virginia Beach side.
“It was a gritty win on tired legs,” said assistant coach Mikey Welsh following the match.
With Baltimore winning on the night as well, the playoff picture in the Mid-Atlantic continued to focus on the head-to-head series already completed between those two sides. Baltimore finish their regular season next week against Charlottesville Alliance, the team currently in third place ahead of a late-charging FC Frederick.
United play the following night at Virginia Beach, knowing that a win would seal the deal for first place in the conference and a guaranteed home playoff match. Charlottesville have two remaining matches, first away to FC Frederick then a trip four days later to CCBC Essex to play FC Baltimore. The Mid-Atlantic playoff places look to be in play as the regular season comes to a close in the next week, setting up a furious last round of games for all sides involved.
Contributor: Northern Virginia United
Photo Credit: Ryan Leung