Grand Rapids, MI hosted the Midwest Region playoffs this past weekend, beginning with two semifinal matches on Friday, followed by the Regional Final on Saturday. What follows is a recap of the matches.
Semi-Final: AFC Cleveland vs. AFC Ann Arbor
The first semifinal saw first seed AFC Cleveland take on AFC Ann Arbor, in a match that was played under grueling weather conditions and was forced to go into extra-time. The game was eventually decided via a penalty shootout, but was filled with the kind of dramatic moments that you often only see in movies.
Ann Arbor pressured Cleveland early on, but as the game went on, the Michigan team’s pace began to slow down. Much of the first half saw the teams alternate between attacking and defending, with both goalkeepers being called into action on more than one occasion.
The second half saw more of the same as in the first, with the players running from one end to the other, albeit with less energy given the toll the heat was taking on the players. Shots from distance were attempted by the two teams, but most were either off target or blocked by a defender.
The match took a drastic turn in the 77th minute, when Royals defender Coletun Long fouled Ade Adeniyi on the edge of the box. As a result, Long was ejected from the game, leaving his team to play the remainder of the match with only 10 players. Now smelling blood, the Oak threw numbers forward, forcing Cleveland to go on the defensive for the last few minutes of the match.
Kevin Taylor nearly scored a winner in stoppage time, as he headed the ball towards the net only to have it blocked and cleared off the goal line by a Cleveland defender. With regulation time over, the teams headed into extra time with the odds favoring the Michigan team.
In the 102nd minute, Dario Suarez looked to finally have beaten Flowers, as he scored a goal that sent his team into a frenzy. Unfortunately for Ann Arbor, the goal was declared offside, cueing a collective sigh of relief for AFC Cleveland. Although the Oak continued its onslaught on the Royals, the Ohio team refused to budge an inch, rejecting all attacks and somehow limping its way to a penalty shootout.
In penalty kicks, Tappenden saved David Jordan’s shot, putting pressure the Royals. Flowers came up big for his team, however, as he saved back to back penalty kicks before Antonio Manfut buried his shot to seal AFC Cleveland’s spot in the final.
FINAL SCORE: AFC Cleveland 0 (3), AFC Ann Arbor 0 (2)
Semi-Final: Grand Rapids FC vs. Indy Eleven NPSL
The protagonists of the second semifinal were hosts Grand Rapids FC and Indy Eleven NPSL. Shorter than the match that preceded it, there was as much of a show on the field as there was off the field given the 6,912 fans in attendance. Although the match was resolved in regulation time, it was only decided by the slimmest of margins.
Grand Rapids got off to a great start as it used its superior speed to attack Indy Eleven down the flanks. During the early part of the match, Indy Eleven was forced to endure the hosts’ blitzkrieg and was largely restricted to its own half. Goalkeeper Cody Schweitzer was forced into performing some early acrobatics to keep the game scoreless.
Following the first 15 minutes of the match, Indy Eleven began to move the ball around and string together a few attacks. Having weathered the early storm, the visitors’ flipped the script on Grand Rapids, forcing them to go on the back foot.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the hosts were actually struggling to venture into Indy Eleven’s half, but their backline managed to fend off Indy Eleven’s attacks. With the game still scoreless, the teams headed into their locker rooms at halftime.
The second half saw the tempo of the match slow down as the players began to feel the effect of the heat. Tempers began to flare and the game became more physical, with both sides being called for fouls. Noble Sullivan managed to fire a shot in the 65th minute, but Schweizer parried it and collected it before Sullivan could follow up.
Five minutes later, Grand Rapids finally made a break through as Sullivan collected a pass from Lito Esquivel, cut into the box and beat Schweizer to the far post to give his team a 1-0 lead. The goal seemed to spur Grand Rapids on, as they continued to attack in search of a second goal, but Schweizer minimized the damage.
Indy Eleven came close to leveling the score in stoppage time as Lamine Balde got his head on a corner kick. Unfortunately for his team, his header went over the crossbar, all but extinguishing any hope Indy Eleven had of taking the match into extra time. As the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the match, Houseman Field erupted in joyous chants celebrating Grand Rapids’ win.
FINAL SCORE: Grand Rapids FC 1, Indy Eleven NPSL 0
Final: AFC Cleveland vs. Grand Rapids FC
The final pitted the winner of the Great Lakes East Conference against the winner of the Great Lakes West Conference, meaning the Midwest Region Champion was bound to be one of the two best teams during the regular season. The game lived up to the expectations, with both teams leaving everything on the field during open play before settling matters via a penalty kick shootout.
The match was physical from the get-go, as players from both sides battled for every ball in an effort to assert their team’s dominance. Grand Rapids looked sharper in the beginning, looking to attack down the flanks. The first clear chance of the match came in the 21st minute, when Scott Doney received a throw-in inside the box and fired a shot, but missed to the right.
The Royals responded with an attack of their own four minutes later, as Chris Cvecko received a cross and fired a shot, but Noah Fazekas saved his shot before saving Cvecko’s second shot. Tom Beck pounced on the ball and had a shot of his own blocked before his second shot was denied by the crossbar.
Knowing the Royals were still recovering from their marathon the day before, Grand Rapids looked to press the tempo of the game. Conversely, AFC Cleveland looked to move the ball around in an effort to slow down the tempo. The hosts continued to bomb down the flanks to cross the ball in, but the Royals’ defense did well to fend them off.
In the 45th minute, Jared Timmer found himself with the ball inside the Royals’ box and fired a shot from point blank range. Much to everyone’s surprise, Anthony Flowers somehow saved it as well as the ensuing shot by Greg Timmer, keeping the game scoreless as the teams headed into halftime.
AFC Cleveland Head Coach Carter Poe made some changes to his team at halftime, pushing his fullbacks forward and switching to a three-man backline. The move proved to be effective, as the Royals gained more width and were better able to deal with Grand Rapids’ attacks.
Now less effective down the flanks, the hosts began attempting shots from afar, with little success. Similarly, AFC Cleveland was having a hard time breaking through the Grand Rapids’ defense, as neither team was giving the other an inch. With the game still at a deadlock, the referee signaled the end of regulation time as the players prepared themselves for extra time.
The 98th minute saw Skye Harter cut into the hosts’ box and fire off a shot, but he was denied by the post. Seconds later, Ryder Bell attempted a shot of his own, but sent the ball well over the crossbar. Grand Rapids came close to scoring in the 117th minute, as Lito Esquivel curled in a free kick that was just barely punched away by Flowers.
As the whistle was blown to signal the end of extra time, both fans and players braced themselves for a penalty shootout. Grand Rapids went first, but had their initial shot saved by Flowers and missed their second kick, while AFC Cleveland converted both of their chances. Jake Vanderlaan put his penalty kick away, giving the hosts some hope.
David Jordan converted for the Royals, bringing the score to 3-1 as Flowers walked towards to the now familiar spot to face off against Greg Timmer. Timmer shot to the left, but the goalkeeper guessed correctly and dove to block it, settling things once and for all. The Royals had won on penalty kicks for the second match in a row.
As the AFC Cleveland players and staff rushed the field, the home crowd consoled the home team before clapping for the new Midwest Region champions.
FINAL SCORE: AFC Cleveland 0 (3), Grand Rapids 0 (1)
Up next for the Royals is a national semifinals match against Clarkstown SC Eagles, the Northeast Region champions.