Cleveland was looking to make it three straight trips to the National Semifinals for the NPSL championship. But they had two roadblocks in their path: 1) Muskegon, who was the remaining highest seed and had a chance to play for the national championship from the comfort of their home city with a win; and 2) A short bench with very few subs due to injuries, commitments, and some college students required to be back to school.
As it turned out, both played a role in the Cleveland SC loss to Muskegon in the early stages of extra time. Muskegon won 1-0 on two quick plays by two substitutes brought on during the humid and cloudy afternoon. Alec Belcastro, brought on in the 67th minute, headed the perfect cross from Teddy (Theo) Maye, also subbed on at the 67th minute, into the back, left corner of the net, surprising CSC goalkeeper Conor Cable.
Muskegon, by virtue of being the highest seed remaining, can play for a national championship from their home field of Russell A Erickson Stadium and Jack Schugars Field at Oakridge High School with a win next Saturday evening.
With the loss, Cleveland’s record ends at 10 wins, 3 losses and 2 ties. And a lonely bus ride from the far western edge of Michigan was all that was left of a crazy season for the men from The Land.
Kickoff underway! Come on boys! #WeAreCLE pic.twitter.com/PZj2KQPYvo
— Cleveland SC (@SoccerCLE) July 24, 2022
Start of the game
Over two inches of rain fell on the Western Michigan city Saturday night. And at kickoff it was very cloudy, extremely humid, and practically windless. A tough weather day even with a normal bench. (More on that later)
One of the stories coming out of the start of the game was the goalkeeper situation for Muskegon. Both their top two netminders were out due to injury. So, Muskegon turned to their third stringer, Dan Morgan, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate! His first game for the Risers saw him give up two quick goals, but the team went on to score five unanswered in the semifinals and he kept their opponent out of the goal.
The thought was let’s try to challenge him early and see how he does. But that proved quite difficult to even get past their defense.
The second story was the number of players on Cleveland’s bench. They only had what appeared to be two substitutes for the entire match. Usually, you are allowed to roster 17 players for the match: your starting eleven, and six more, typically five substitutes and a backup goalie. There were many reasons for the shortened bench, but it’s the playoffs. You play who you have. But with the weather as it was, you knew fatigue would probably set in sometime in the second half.
The third topic unrelated to the play on the field was that many of the Cleveland players had beaten many of the Risers players earlier this year in the indoor arena national semifinals. Some of the Muskegon roster could have been excited for revenge!
Muskegon won the coin toss and started the match. And from the minute the game started, the Risers were playing with their foot on the accelerator!
Muskegon was obviously aware of the lack of depth on Cleveland’s bench, so they challenged every pass, 50/50 ball, and double-teamed every Cleveland player who touched the ball. In the 7th minute Cleveland midfielder Chris Cvecko gets clipped from behind on an extremely physical play by Muskegon’s Guiseppe Barone, and the referee carded Barone for the play.
The first ten minutes had both teams appear sloppy. Cleveland’s passes were intercepted, or they were forced into passing before a teammate was ready to accept it. Muskegon could not penetrate the Cleveland back line and gave the ball away numerous times just after entering the final third. But Muskegon was warming up.
The next five minutes was all Muskegon. In the 11’ a dangerous Muskegon center is cleared by Conor. Shortly thereafter, the Riser’s dangerous striker, Vitalis Takawira Jr. (Taka), had the first shot on goal easily saved by Cable. The next minute saw the first Riser corner easily handled by Cleveland. But the fourteenth minute saw the first dangerous opportunity for Michigan.
Conor and the Cleveland defense was trying to deal with the past five minutes of activity in their defensive third. A quick shot from the top of the box had Cable sliding to his right to block it out of harm’s way, but it gave Muskegon a corner. The kick into the box was cleared by Cable, and in the scrum leading up to Cable’s clearance, Niokla Petrovic and Vinnie Bell collided. Petrovic, the Riser defender, banged his head on Bell’s shoulder. It would not be the first time Vinnie was asked to defend corners.
More physical play from Muskegon knocked Cleveland defender Daniel Tragansinin out of the pitch and onto the adjacent track. It was another example that everything would be challenged and challenged with authority.
The first twenty minutes had Muskegon with a 70/30% possession lead and unbelievably that would grow as the match continued.
Jannis Schmidt was hounded all game and after a tumble where he lost the ball, he was shown a yellow card for constantly harping at the lack of calls going his and Cleveland’s way.
Finally, Cleveland had some looks at the high school goalkeeper. In the 24’ minute Cleveland had to deal with another Riser corner. Vinnie Bell was there to head it out of trouble. Then Cleveland started down the field.
The ball was on the far side of the pitch where Cvecko crossed it into the box. Vinnie, trying to lunge to the ball, headed his attempt to the recent graduate, Dan Young, who corralled it quickly.
Cleveland continued their work, but their touches were heavy and sloppy, constantly turning over passes or having weak ones blocked by Michigan. Chris Brennan and Cvecko try to work the ball in but Elliot Bentley, the defensive specialist for Muskegon, is there to clear. Bentley won’t win the man of the match for Muskegon, but his defensive blocks and steals frustrated CSC all game.
Close for Muskegon
The last ten minutes of the first half were all Muskegon. With two corners and a free kick in a dangerous area, Cleveland’s defense worked to keep the game at 0-0. Benjamin Hryszko cleared one attempt out.
A set piece for Muskegon at the 42’ minute was lifted into the box and talented Taka just headed it over the Cleveland bar.
Cleveland won a corner at the 45’ minute, and Bell’s header popped up and was cleared by the Riser defense. The half ended 0-0.
The first four minutes of the half were all Muskegon. At the 49’ another shot by Taka hit the top crossbar! That was a bomb.
Muskegon had success in the first half with double teaming anytime a midfielder or outside defender gets the ball. They continued that tactic. And it was forcing Cleveland into poor passes and turnovers every time they had a short spell of possession.
Dakota Jonke, the hero on Wednesday but quiet this Sunday afternoon, tried to push forward in the 53’. He did well to maneuver around the Riser midfield but held on too long and lost the ball. No one, other than Bell, ran with him. Cleveland midfielders looked tired and gassed.
The bad sign for Cleveland was the possession. At the end of the first half, it favored Muskegon, 71% to 29%. The other bad omen was the weather as the humidity seemed to take its toll on the players. Without Boban Cancar, the stout defensive genius for Cleveland and his ability to get the defense together and communicate with his goalie, this game would be out of reach for Cleveland. As it stood, the match was still scoreless.
Back and Forth!
Now both sides started pressing when they could. Cleveland had a poor pass to Boban and Muskegon, grabbing the loose ball, chipped it just wide of the net.
Cleveland pushed forward again. Bell received a nice pass and moved left of the box. He sent it in and found Cvecko whose shot was saved by Morgan. For a moment, Morgan lost the handle on it and Cleveland somehow inadvertently kicked it out for a Riser goal kick. What a missed opportunity!
Near Cleveland Goal!
Muskegon had two yellow cards on challenges to Cleveland players in the next few minutes. On one of these in the 63’, Jannis Schmidt passed to Brennan and his driving shot was somehow blocked by Bentley for Muskegon. Without that stop that’s a goal!
Muskegon, sensing tired legs, made four substitute changes. Two of which changed the game and led to the Muskegon goal. Teddy Maye and Alec Belcastro were brought on in the 67’. Their presence changed the flow from Cleveland’s forward pushing to Muskegon on the attack. Cleveland made their first sub shortly after. Dakota Jonke, not happy to be taken out, was replaced by Corbin McAvinew.
Maye and Belcastro teamed up for a corner in the 72’ as their fresh legs got Cleveland mixed up. The corner is taken care of quickly. But the feeling was strong: Muskegon is ready to push the play.
But in the 75’ minute, Cleveland was almost rewarded. The Risers got sloppy and a miskick by a defender bounded toward their own goal, but Dan Morgan quickly moved to cover it up.
Muskegon had two attempts that were close to making the game 1-0 in their favor. In the 77’ a centered ball was sent in front of Cable and no one from Muskegon was there to clear it away. Honestly, no one from Cleveland was, either!
Shortly after, Michigan, again off a block and steal, found space and drilled a 25-yard shot that hit the top of Cleveland’s post.
The 83’ was Cleveland’s last chance for a goal as Brennan’s inswinging corner harmlessly fell to Morgan. At this point the possession is now 75/25 Risers!
The last five minutes of the match saw numerous corners by Muskegon. Cleveland was doing its best to avoid any damage and get to the break to wait for the overtime fifteen-minute periods. But the two super Muskegon subs were not going to let the game get to overtime.
The clock showed that the match was now officially after the 90’ minute. In this extra time, Maye grabbed the ball on the far side of the pitch close to touch. His perfect cross found Belcastro on the far side of Cable’s box. His header crossed Conor up as he directed it to the Cleveland keeper’s left and into the back of the net. Muskegon was finally able to break through the Cleveland wall. 1-0.
Riser’s coach Stu Collins said after the game:
“We had to be patient and that was the game plan all along. Just wait for the moment. As me and Alec (Belcastro) said, it’s just one moment of quality. We knew our subs would come in and impact the game.”
Then, Cleveland’s frustration was on full display. Both Chris Cvecko and Jannis Schmidt are shown their second yellows of the game for arguing and Cleveland is now down to nine men with roughly one minute left in the contest.
The match ended, and Cleveland’s season of dealing with a new coach right before their first regular season match, injuries that kept key players out of matches in the middle to later part of the season, and a constant roster in a state of flux ended in Western Michigan.
Cleveland SC coach Muresan:
“We’ll be back,” Muresan said. “We won the first round with a goal in the 96th minute and today we lost with a goal in the 90th minute. Football is like this. Sometimes it goes for you and sometimes it goes against you.”
In this league the men are NOT paid for their efforts. They play for fun, for their community, and, for some of the college stars, to stay in shape. Their families and loved ones drive to cheer them on in rain or heat. The coaches and players and fans all do this because they love the game.
They put off vacations and ask for time off from their jobs all in the hope for a chance to play for a national championship. And to redeem how last year ended for CSC.
Cleveland has battled through a tough conference schedule and a brutal playoff one. Though they won’t be playing the rest of the summer, hopefully they can enjoy what is left of their summer after giving all they had on a cloudy, humid day.
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