Paulie Nittoli and Phil Bannister each scored first half goals to spearhead the Clarkstown Eagles to a 2-0 victory over New Jersey Copa FC in the NPSL Northeast Regional final Saturday afternoon at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
With the temperature reaching a steaming 95 degrees in Mahwah, NJ, both teams looked to maintain possession in an effort to save their legs and make their opponents cover more space.
Five minutes into the contest, it would be the hosts who had the first attempt on goal as right back Martin Dadaj’s cross found a wide open Lucas Befi. Unfortunately for the Clarkstown forward, his header went straight into the waiting arms of NJ Copa FC goalkeeper Matthew Perrella.
Clarkstown would continue to put pressure on NJ Copa’s defense, nearly scoring in the 12th minute but having it called back due to the offside flag. After that close call, the Eagles forced Perrella into a nice left-footed save in the 13th minute in order to keep the game scoreless.
Clarkstown would finally turn their early moments of dominance into a lead in the 17th minute.
Following another sequence started by Dadaj, Lucas Befi found space down the right side and just outside of the penalty area. The Clarkstown No. 10 spotted an unmarked Nittoli at the penalty spot and was able to connect with his strike partner with a perfectly lofted cross. The Clarkstown No. 9 made no mistake, easily placing his header past a diving Perrella to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead.
“It was crucial (to get the first goal),” said Clarkstown head coach Oliver Papraniku.
As the afternoon temperature hovered in the mid-90’s, there was little relief due to a cloudless sky and an inconsequential slight breeze. In an effort to protect the players, the referee called for a hydration break in the 25th minute.
Following the break, NJ Copa were reenergized.
The visitors channeled that energy into their first sustained term of possession and also registered their first shot on goal.
The positivity for Copa would be short-lived as Clarkstown broke through with their second in the 34th minute via Bannister.
After absorbing some NJ Copa FC pressure, Clarkstown were able to spring a counter attack that resulted in a corner kick. Perrella came out of the six-yard box in an attempt to punch the corner but would make a mess of it and Bannister was all alone to head the ball into the open net.
With a two-goal lead in hand, Clarkstown shifted into a more defensive shape in order to see out the victory in the oppressive heat.
“Tactically we started with a 3-5-2 and after we scored a couple we went to the 4-4-2,” Papraniku said. “Later, went to the 4-5-1.”
The defensive tactic saw Clarkstown concede the majority of the possession to NJ Copa in the second half. However, clear scoring chances would be limited for NJ Copa until the 65th minute when Andres Berriel’s left-footed effort would beat Clarkstown goalkeeper Bryan Lopez but go wide of the net. Lopez would make his best save of the day in the 69th, denying Copa on a large-range effort.
In a repeat of the first half, NJ Copa would come out strong following a water break (this time in the 70th minute) but would be unable to convert any of their opportunities into goals.
The final 20 minutes would prove extremely frustrating for NJ Copa FC as they tried desperately to crack Clarkstown’s 4-5-1 bunker only to be rebuffed repeatedly until the final whistle.
Clarkstown heads into the national semifinals as the No. 2 seed behind Chattanooga FC and as a result, will host AFC Cleveland next weekend.