There will be plenty of talent at Yale University’s Reese Stadium this weekend as the Elm City Express and CD Aguiluchos USA face off in one of two national semifinal matches. Elm City boasts a player with massive professional experience and another that represented New Zealand at the U-17 World Cup, while CD Aguiluchos features a two-time NPSL Golden Boot winner and the 2013 NPSL Player of the Year.
Both sides are on a hot streak, literally taking the NPSL playoffs by storm.
Aguiluchos punched their ticket to the national semifinals with a 1-0 win over Orange County FC last week, shutting out a team that scored 65 goals in the regular season. CDA also defeated the likes of the Sonoma County Sol and Kitsap SC in the opening rounds.
Elm City is coming off a 3-1 win over Clarkstown SC Eagles, having already defeated TSF FC and Legacy 76 in the previous rounds. Elm City has outscored their postseason opponents by a 9-1 margin.
A big reason for Elm City’s success has to be the experience and stellar play of forward Graciano Brito, a man that has literally done it all. Brito has played professionally in Portugal and the U.S., starring for Clube Operario Desportivo, FC New York, and the Rochester Rhinos. He was also a decorated player for Quinnipiac University, winning back-to-back Conference Player of the Year honors and finishing second on QU’s all-time scoring and point lists. Now he is one of the top young coaches in the collegiate game, having spent six seasons with the Bobcats coaching staff.
Brito has seen the spotlight before so he knows how to help younger players on the squad. He also knows that nerves will play part, but he is there to show them the way since he has played in so many big games. Brito is a steadying influence for those on the Express roster that have never played in the NPSL before.
Still the results for the first-year NPSL side have simply been amazing. Brito agrees.
“The results have shown that we had a great season. Zack (Henry), Brian (Neumeyer), Teddy (Haley), and Eric (Da Costa) have done a tremendous job in running the club, running it the right way, like a professional club. We have found tremendous success on and off the field.”
Defender Ashton Pett, a fellow Quinnipiac alum who hails from Auckland, New Zealand, had a similarly positive experience.
“The season has been fantastic. I wasn’t too sure of what to expect heading into the season as it is our first year, but the way Elm City has been run has been very professional. All of the boys, coaching staff, and everyone behind the scenes have demonstrated this professionalism through their commitment and attitudes week in and week out.”
Brito knows the squad will avoid becoming complacent by approaching the game in a familiar manner.
“This is nothing different for us. Every game is important. It is just a matter of continuing what we have been doing. We will focus on ourselves and what we do best. We’ll continue to work hard, knowing that the coaching staff has a game plan for us to execute.”
The São Nicolau, Cape Verde native is excited to play the national semifinal at home and for good reason.
“Our fans are always talking, singing, drumming. You can feel the buzz around Connecticut about the success of this team.”
Pett has also enjoyed playing on the Yale campus this year.
“We have made Reese Stadium a bit of a fortress this season. We have played some good football there and have been very hard to break down. One of our biggest assets has been our fans. Week in and week out, they have been there so it really makes it a great atmosphere to play in. The Yard Dogs, Brick Oven Boys, drummers, and Elm City Internationals have been amazing for us so it is always a pleasure celebrating with them after our games.”
No matter the location, this matchup was destined to dazzle from the start. Both teams have earned the right to be part of this important weekend.
“This is going to be a very tough match,” Pett concluded. “CD Aguiluchos are here not by accident so we are ready for a battle and know that if we want to move forward we are going to need to have our best game of the season.”
CD Aguiluchos shares the same respect for their opponent, but comes from an entirely different part of the country as the Oakland side will travel nearly 3,000 miles for this match.
However, Aguiluchos forward Simon Rawnsley is not worried about the travel.
“We will have a day to relax, prepare, stretch our legs. We are not going straight from the bus to the field.”
It’s quite clear that the NPSL veteran is excited about the opportunity to play in another national semifinal, knowing he has been there before.
“We’ve been at home for the playoffs this season, but I’ve never been out to Connecticut before. We want to enjoy the experience and give it our all.”
However, CDA are hoping for a different result from two years ago as they fell to New York Cosmos B at this same stage of the playoffs. Goalkeeper Kevin Gonzalez believes it will indeed be different.
“We have a different maturity, we’ve come together as a team. Not too often can you truly bring together a team. It’s a brotherhood. We have a ‘if you sacrifice, I’ll sacrifice’ attitude. Everyone sacrifices. We have all kinds of responsibilities, work, kids. That’s the beauty of it. We are playing for the love of the game.”
Aguiluchos clearly won’t have homefield advantage, but they won’t be alone thanks to CDA’s amazing following and sense of community.
CDA has thousands of followers on social media and a truly international following from California to El Salvador, but it’s the little things that make Aguiluchos a special club.
“Roger (Amaya) has rejuvenated our love for the game,” Gonzalez said. “Our fans have sacrificed so much for us. We want to represent the community well.”
Doing the community proud involves playing hard every game, setting goals, and achieving them. The team made the goal of qualifying for the U.S. Open Cup in the preseason and it appears that they have already achieved that. They have won their conference, region, and now have their sights on a national title.
Rawnsley put it simply. “We want to win the treble.”
Achieving that will require big performances on the biggest stages. Rawnsley has already seen that from Gonzalez.
Many people saw Gonzalez as the hero of last week’s victory against Orange County. Gonzalez faced a barrage of shots and a wild finish to the game. OCFC even pulled their keeper in the waning moments, sending the goalie into the attack, but nothing seemed to faze Gonzalez.
“Our goalkeeper won it for us,” Rawnsley noted. “Kevin was smart and organized, making great saves. It was a real credit to our defense. Everyone put their bodies on the line and were blocking shots. We challenged every ball.”
Gonzalez was impressed by the competition.
“Orange County was easily the best team we played this season. It was a battle in the back. We had last-minute corners, crosses, and saves.”
It is obvious that this national semifinal is going to be one for the ages, an epic battle for the opportunity to be called national champions.