Using a combination of stout defending, great goalkeeping and an efficient attack, the Indiana Fire continued their impressive run through the National Premier Soccer League Midwest Division by claiming their first regional title Saturday.
Vincent Mitchell scored in first-half stoppage time to snap a tie and drew a penalty kick that Jack Griffith converted in the second half as the Fire posted a 3-1 victory over AFC Cleveland on a toasty afternoon at Breese Stevens Field in Madison, Wis.
Right back Kevin Klett scored the opener and keeper Cody Schweitzer made seven saves for Indiana (9-2-3), which avenged both of its losses with its wins over the Madison 56ers and AFC Cleveland in the Midwest playoffs.
The Fire needed to win their final four regular-season matches to claim the final spot in the four-team playoff field. The second of those games, a 2-1 road victory over the Minnesota Twin Stars on July 12, was of particular importance to Indiana coach John Simmonds. The Fire pulled out the win despite taking just 14 players.
“I look back and that was the game when I realized we could get into the playoffs, and if we got here, we’d have a chance at it. It’s been exciting,” said Simmonds, whose team has allowed just three goals in its six-game winning streak.
Third-seeded AFC Cleveland (9-3-2), coming off a 2-1 victory over Rust Belt Derby rival Detroit City FC in Friday’s semifinals, outshot Indiana 16-4 but was left frustrated by the Fire backline and Schweitzer.
“Every time we got some momentum, it just kind of deflated,” said Royals coach Carter Poe, whose club was making its second appearance in the Midwest finals.
Never was that more apparent than in the final moments of the first half.
After falling behind in the 31st minute when Klett touched in a corner kick served by Cristian Soto, Cleveland had a long stretch of possession. Right back Nate Shultz tracked a long ball into the right side of the box and hit a volley that deflected off Griffith and rolled past Schweitzer to make it 1-1 in the 3rd minute of stoppage time.
Seconds later, though, Fire captain and leading scorer Nago Mbengue slotted a ball through for Mitchell, and the Jamaican attacking midfielder fought past two Cleveland defenders on the left side and fired past Royals keeper Alex Ivanov as Indiana instantly took back the lead.
“Based on where we were physically, we were struggling a little bit right before the half. We needed to get into the locker room, talk about it and get them cooled off,” said Simmonds, whose team was without All-Midwest midfielder Bennett Kim because of a groin injury suffered in Friday night’s 1-0 win over the 56ers. “That goal we scored right after theirs to go up 2-1 at half was huge. Vinny Mitchell, great individual effort. In my opinion, he’s Man of the Match today.”
The reaction was, predictably, much different on the other sideline.
“It was really hard,” said Poe, whose team beat the Fire 2-0 back on June 19. “It was tied up, we were feeling good, starting to control play, we got back in it, and it just deflates you right before halftime.”
Schweitzer and the Indiana backline stood firm throughout the second half.
The Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne keeper preserved Indiana’s slim lead on the hour mark, diving to his right to grabbed a deflected ball off a corner kick. He finished with 14 saves in the two regional playoff matches, allowing just the own goal.
And the combination of Mbengue and Mitchell hooked up again to set up Griffith’s insurance goal in the 68th.
Mbengue slipped a ball into space on the left side of the box for Mitchell, whose path to goal was seemingly blocked by Cleveland center back Coletun Long. But the Butler forward cut back, Long clipped him and the referee pointed to the spot. Griffith, heading into his sophomore season at Indiana, sent the penalty into the right side of the goal as Ivanov dove the other way.
The Fire were outshot 33-10 on the weekend and had just five shots on goal, but scored four times.
“We deserve it. We worked hard for it,” Mitchell said. “Our mentality in this game was, ‘They are not going to beat us again.’ “