In easily the most gripping contest of Northern Virginia United’s breakout inaugural season, the Sky Blues found themselves on the wrong side of a penalty kick shootout result against cross-river rivals FC Frederick in the first round of the NPSL Mid-Atlantic Conference playoffs, falling by a score of 4-3 in penalties after a back-and-forth 2-2 AET draw. The result saw FC Frederick move on to the Conference final, where they will play FC Baltimore at CCBC Essex at 7:00 pm Saturday.
The third installment in the Potomac River Derby between the Mid-Atlantic Conference’s two most-closely located clubs shaped up to be a tightly-fought contest, and the teams did not disappoint the expectations of the raucous crowd of over 300 at CroppMetcalfe Park. United started the quickest, winning a few set pieces in the first ten minutes that led to trouble for the Frederick back four. United center back Oumar Ballo got on the end of one such chance at the back post, but headed his effort straight at goalkeeper Philip Breno. The next few minutes saw the visitors come into the game, with Frederick midfielder Justin Lee troubling United goalkeeper Colin Shutler on a vicious shot from distance that the UVA product tipped over the bar, then pulling a shot wide from nearly the same range off the resulting corner. United’s Tommy Buono looked dangerous on balls played into the channels, and the battle between him and the Frederick back four would play a large part in the proceedings as the match went on.
United continued to find the early possession, especially through midfielder and Mid-Atlantic Conference XI selection Chris Welsh. The Scot had several looks from inside thirty yards in the first twenty minutes, bending one just wide and another just over the bar as the home side ramped up the pressure. Captain Shaka Bangura offered the next real threat for the hosts, smashing one from the edge of the box that forced Breno into a smart save on 25 minutes. The visitors had several dangerous opportunities of their own, with William Eskay having possibly the best chance of the half. Eskay picked up the ball in United’s defensive third, weaving his way into the box and nearly creating a 1v1 with Shutler, but was tackled for a corner with a timely intervention by United center back Collin Verfurth. The half ended as even as it had began, with neither side really dominating the run of play in what had been a very open game.
The second half started to show the chippiness and give-no-quarter character that has come to define this rivalry in the 2018 season. Every 50/50 ball was guaranteed to be a physical battle, and the referee was called upon to calm the players a few times before the hour mark.
Frederick would strike first, slightly against the run of play in the minutes leading up to the goal but no more than the visitors deserved. Shutler attempted to play out of the back, but misplayed a pass to Frederick forward Saidou Toure, who coolly slotted home the 1v1 to give the visitors the advantage right on the hour.
The testiness of the match produced its first yellow card in the 62nd minute, as Jacob Wilkinson was booked for a foul on Welsh. Two minutes later, the hosts found a well-earned equalizer. A corner whipped in by Welsh was headed back across goal by Ballo, finding his center back partner and Mid-Atlantic Conference XI selection Verfurth on a diving header powered past Breno to bring the scores level and sending CroppMetcalfe Park into a frenzy. United’s goal really reopened the game, which had slowed a bit in the previous ten minutes. Buono continued to look dangerous on runs into the corners, where Frederick would often send two and three defenders to shut down United’s top scorer on the season. Frederick looked dangerous themselves, playing on the counter on United giveaways and intercepted crosses through William Eskay and Toure. The rapid pace of the game and end-to-end play gave room for a few more late fouls, and Frederick’s Kevin Morris, another Conference XI pick, was booked on 70 minutes in the aftermath of a foul. Set pieces seemed United’s best hope in the closing minutes, and Verfurth put a contested header over the bar right at the end of the match. The final whistle blew, and the match would be decided either in extra time or through penalty kicks following the 1-1 result.
United began the extra time period just as they had begun the match, with Tommy Buono looking to get in behind the two Frederick center backs. In the 97th minute, he finally broke through. Buono took a ball slipped between the Frederick lines and was running through on goal for a 1v1 with Breno when he was brought down by Wilkinson in the box, forcing the referee Smith to whistle for a penalty kick. Up stepped Chris Welsh, who calmly buried his kick past Breno to give the hosts a deserved lead halfway through the first period of extra time. Frederick responded almost immediately in the 100th minute through substitute Brian Flatter. A Frederick corner took a deflection off of United defender Ahmed Ismail, and Flatter, who had been on the field for maybe ninety seconds, turned smartly on the ball to shoot into the top corner, despite the efforts of Verfurth to head the ball away. The first extra-time period ended with the scores level again at 2-2, setting up a frantic final period before the match went to penalty kicks.
In the second period of extra-time, United looked most likely to score, with Bangura and Buono combining on the edge of the box dangerously but tackled just in time by Morris. Frederick had a chance go begging in the closing minutes, as substitute Shawn Baker ripped a first-time shot straight at Shutler from distance. Neither side could find a breakthrough, however, and the gripping playoff match would indeed be decided on penalties. United Director of Operations Dennis Lee was quoted before the shootout, drawing inspiration from the movie Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?”
United would shoot first, in front of the north end and the rabid supporters from the Night’s Watch. Up stepped Chris Welsh, who would bury his second penalty in the last half an hour to give the hosts the advantage. Frederick substitute Christian Morales answered, knotting the scores at 1-1. Next came Buono, one of United’s most dangerous players on the night. However, Buono’s night would not see the ending it deserved, as he saw his penalty saved smartly by Breno to tip the scales in favor of the visitors. Graham Guidry smashed his penalty home to give Frederick a 2-1 advantage after two rounds. Up stepped captain Bangura, who coolly slotted home under pressure to keep United in the tie. Shawn Baker then put his penalty over the bar, levelling the shootout and giving United a chance to take the lead. Substitute Patrick Jean-Gilles couldn’t take advantage, however, skipping his penalty off the top of the bar. Next came Flatter, who showed great composure to give the visitors the lead again, and putting pressure on United to score or bow out of the playoffs. Center back Ballo sent Breno the wrong way to tie the game again, giving Shutler an opportunity to keep the Sky Blues alive with a save in round five. Shutler could do nothing about the ensuing penalty, however, as Bilal Hassane put his kick off the left post and in past the diving goalkeeper to put FC Frederick into Saturday’s Mid-Atlantic Conference final at FC Baltimore.
The back-and-forth nature of the game showed the character of the two sides, according to United boss Brian Welsh. “Sometimes [your] heads go down, but our heads never went down, their heads never went down, we go out on penalties but our heads aren’t down now.”
When asked about the penalty decision, Frederick boss Chris Spinks had this to say: “Everyone sees it a different way, our guys and I myself thought it was a clean tackle.”
Spinks did have plenty to say about the level of the Mid-Atlantic Conference with addition of United and other new sides. “The big thing to take is that [United] are a strong team, they’re a new team this year and the new teams that have come into the league this year have really helped to lift the standard.”
United captain and goalkeeper Colin Shutler had some glowing praise for the United supporters, saying “we are very proud of the support, thank you for making [CroppMetcalfe Park] a very good environment.”
FC Frederick will travel to CCBC Essex to play in the Mid-Atlantic Conference Final against top seed FC Baltimore on Saturday night, in what should be one of the marquee games of the season. United will look to build upon a fantastic inaugural season in the NPSL next year.
Contributor: Connor Lee/Northern Virginia United
Photo Credit: David Lamay, Patty Spear, and Ryan Leung, NVUFC