The Elm City Express has had a magical first season in the National Premier Soccer League.
First, the New Haven-based team won the Atlantic Blue Conference regular-season championship, then captured the Northeast Region Championship after beating Clarkstown (N.Y.) in the tournament quarterfinals on July 29.
And now, the Express will be hosting the national championship game at the friendly confines of Reese Stadium at Yale University. Top seed Elm City eliminated No. 4 CD Aguiluchos USA 2-0 Saturday night in the semifinals before 2,261 fans.
“We said it as soon as the playoffs started, ‘Let’s do something really special,” Elm City head coach Teddy Haley said. “To host it here in front of great supporters, and to have the group we have with so many local ties is incredible. That’s special to us. We don’t take that lightly. We know we are representing a great group of supporters who have been behind us from the beginning. I can’t wait.”
Elm City (13-1-2) will host Midland-Odessa FC for the national title next Saturday at Reese, where the Express have yet to lose. Midland-Odessa beat Detroit City FC 4-2 in penalty kicks in the other semifinal.
“This does a lot for the city of New Haven,” forward Shaquille Saunchez said. “Everyone is excited about soccer. It’s one of those experiences we won’t forget, the first time in the league hosting a national championship, there aren’t too many stories like that.”
Graciano Brito had the first goal for the Express, slipping past the Aguiluchos’ defense and beating goalkeeper Kevin Gonzalez in the eighth minute.
CD Aguiluchos was issued three yellow cards in the first half and those resulting injuries added an extra five minutes onto the first half. Elm City benefited from it.
Tavoy Morgan fed Saunchez up the right side. Saunchez beat his defender and goalkeeper Kevin Gonzalez with the back-breaking goal as his teammates came to mob the fleet forward.
“Coach always tells us in practice ‘when the forward gets it, you have to put your head down and go, so I did,” Saunchez said.
Said Haley: “That goal gave us momentum for the second half.”
That was the exact same score Elm City led last weekend’s game over Clarkstown. This time, the defense finished off the shutout, the third of the playoffs for Elm City, which has allowed just one goal in the four playoff games.
“The back four and (goalkeeper) Matt Jones, they were fantastic,” Haley said. “Defensively, we were responsible. That’s how you pick up clean sheets, doing the little things right.”
Aguiluchos (11-4-1) had five shot attempts in the game.
“They are a great team, the first season for those guys, that’s impressive,” CD Aguiluchos coach Roger Amaya said. “We have to do something, bring in new players. With all these new teams coming over to the league, they are better teams.”