Before a sold out crowd of 2,205 fans, AFC Cleveland twice rallied from being a goal down to defeat Sonoma County Sol and win the NPSL National Championship on Saturday night. Braces by Varnadore and Vinny Bell kept the team level for most of the match before goals by Antonio Manfut and Ryder Bell in the dying minutes of the game made it 4-2 in favor of the hosts.
“It’s surreal, it’s crazy. I can’t even believe it. Mikey [Derezic] asked me if this is real. I told him ‘I’ll tell you tomorrow when I wake up’,” said an ecstatic Carter Poe, AFC Cleveland’s Head Coach.
The game was much closer than the final score would lead one to believe, and it lived up to everything a final should be. In fact, Sonoma County were the better team early on, as the Californians applied constant pressure to the Royals, forcing them into making sloppy passes.
The visitors opened up the scoring in the 15th minute, when Taylor Varnadore headed the ball in off a corner kick to give his team the lead. Down early on for the second match in a row, AFC Cleveland regrouped and began to take control of the match, stringing together more passes and retaining more possession.
In the 32nd minute, Vinny Bell received the ball and went on a counterattack. In an amazing solo effort, the veteran took on the entire Sonoma County defense before sliding the ball past goalkeeper Sean Taufer to tie things up for the Royals. Varnadore attempted another header in a counterattack of his own a minute later, but it went wide of the mark.
Spurred on by the goal, the hosts continued to attack, coming close in the 38th minute thanks to a shot by Brian Potocnik that was deflected out for a corner kick. Taufer came up big for Sonoma County in the 45th minute, when he saved a rocket of a shot by Manfut from 30+ yards out. At the other end, Mike Derezic performed an amazing defensive play to halt the visitors’ attack and ensure the game remained 1-1 going into halftime.
Sonoma County began the second half much like it had begun the first, putting the home team under pressure. In the 48th minute, Paravicini blasted the ball towards goal, but Anthony Flowers managed to save the shot. Eleven minutes later, Varnadore earned his second goal of the evening after receiving a long ball inside the box. The forward then beat Flowers to the left post, once again giving his team the lead.
Not to be outdone by a visiting striker, Vinny Bell scored a brace of his own in the 64th minute after receiving a ball from David Jordan inside the box. Bell then easily sent the ball to the back of the net, once again leveling the score.
With AFC Cleveland growing in confidence, Sonoma County began to attempt shots from afar. In the 73rd minute, Diego Lopez fired a shot from outside the box, but Flowers dived just in time to send it out for a corner kick. There was a second shot following the corner kick, but it went straight at Flowers, who easily dealt with it.
The attack would be the last significant of the evening for the visitors, as AFC Cleveland began to smell blood and went in for the kill. In the 81st minute, Manfut attempted a shot from outside the box, but missed wide. Six minutes later he would not fail, as he received a ball from Tom Beck at the edge of the box and smashed a shot into the goal, nearly putting the ball through the net.
With time running out, it was an uphill battle for Sonoma County, who was trying everything in its power to break through the Royals’ defense. Ryder Bell would put an end to their aspirations in the first minute of stoppage time, as the forward went on a breakaway and scored AFC Cleveland’s fourth of the evening, putting the nail in the coffin for Sonoma County.
As the referee blew the final whistle, both players and fans stormed the field, eager to celebrate the Royals’ first ever National Championship, and the third one for a Cleveland sports team this year. For players like Vinny Bell, who has been with the team since its first season, the victory felt like a reward for the loyalty shown to the club.
“To go through five years and finally cap it off like this, it’s been a fun journey and I’m glad we could reach this point,” stated Bell.
Carter Poe, who started out as a player before becoming the Royals’ Head Coach, had similar feelings and expressed how proud he was of his players.
“Coming through, playing with those guys… they’ve always been great players and guys that I think could play at an even higher level and maybe [have] never gotten the respect they deserve, so to see them accomplish this has been pretty cool,” he shared.
Midfielder Mike Derezic, a Cleveland native, spoke about what it meant to be recognized as the best team in the league, although he admitted it was hard to put into words.
“To be the number one team in the country in any division and any league is something to hang your hat on,” said Derezic. “I can’t explain the feeling, I’ve never experienced it before so I’m very ecstatic, I’m very happy. I know that my parents, family, my friends, and mi high school and my college ex-teammates that I played with, I know they’re ecstatic with me and they’re happy with me.”
When asked about the character of the team and their ability to come back from being a goal down, Poe alluded to the team’s ability to grind down and power through obstacle.
“It’s kind of how things have been for us just all year really: things have gone against us. We’ve talked about guys dropping of the team, going to games with 13 players like last weekend, battling the heat, the weather, PKs, guys sent off, and we’ve always just powered through.”
Derezic agrees with Poe, adding that he may never be able to explain what winning the title feels like.
“That shows the character of this team this year in particular. We ‘ve come from behind in a couple games now and we prove to never give up. I’ve never experienced this and it’s something special. It’s something you can’t put into words, no matter how many questions are asked. It means the world.”