Buffalo & District Soccer League first division team Pendleton United had a chance to become the first non-premier or championship-level squad to reach the Tehel Cup finals in more than a decade, but Yemen Elite refused to be on the wrong side of a Cinderella story.
Mateo Escobar scored twice and Kerri Pryce added a goal and an assist in Elite's 3-1 win Thursday at D'Youville College's Dobson Field. Kyle Jones tallied the Lions' lone marker.
The winners will take on Buffalo United Soccer Stars (BUSS), who beat FC Yemen, 3-0, in the Tehel Cup finals at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at Sweet Home High School. That match will follow Youngstown Marksmen vs. Los Chupacabras, the title game for the Wood Cup, which is the single-elimination tournament for the second and third divisions of the BDSL.
1-0, Yemen Elite, 25': After several half chances in the first 20 minutes, Elite broke through in the 25th. Loping at Pendleton's defense at speed, Escobar knifed around two defenders, combined on a wall pass with Pryce, then jammed his shot low to the near post past Sam DelPrince.
"Most of the season we've had to come from behind - we've always trailed in the first 15 minutes," remarked Pryce, who was limited due to illness, following the match. "But we scored first, and that gave us motivation to push forward, and we built on that momentum and carried through for the entire game."
2-0, Yemen Elite, 35': Sustained, threatening possession from Elite was rewarded with a second goal, as winger Sulemana Ali slipped a pass in toward Pryce, who took a touch before crushing a right-footed shot inside DelPrince's back post.
2-1, Yemen Elite, 43': Pendleton's Kyle Jones has been a one-man wrecking ball for much of the season, and the speedy striker took advantage of a one-vs.-one on the left side to fly down the sideline, cut inside and tap the ball past Elite keeper Billy Hanford.
3-1, Yemen Elite, 55': On the other side of halftime, Elite continued to pound Pendleton with waves of pressure, moving decisively off the ball and forcing their foes to chase.
After a series of forays down the right hand side, a partial clearance from Pendleton wound up at Escobar's feet outside the 18-yard box, and after a faked shot with his right, the University at Buffalo alum curled a left-footed effort around DelPrince and into the lower left corner.
"Mateo is awesome, man," praised Pryce. "Great player, great teammate. Passes the ball, very vocal as a captain - I couldn't ask for a better captain."
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR ELITE: Thursday's win was a confidence boost for Elite, who finished just one point out of the relegation zone in premier. Attendance problems, an issue for much of the season, were less of a worry against Pendleton, as Faress Saleh had four substitutes at his disposal.
While a deeper squad encouraged Elite to run at defenders all night, it was a collective change of mindset that has propelled Yemen to the finals of Buffalo's longest-running amateur sports tournament.
"There were a lot of ups and downs inside of the season, toward the end of the season, we needed to focus on having fun and being less worried about playing time, this or that, the little things," Escobar said after the match.
"With more of a focus on having fun, the guys end up playing better. It's a natural flow. The last few games we've had everybody show up in the Tehel Cup, and it obviously makes a big difference."
WHY ELITE WERE SUCCESSFUL: Every Elite attacker is comfortable and quick with the ball at their feet, and Saleh's squad did well to isolate pacy Ali Adil, Layth Alaekada and Kovan Menr against solo Pendleton defenders on the wings. Although Lions defenders Allan Wade, Jake Graham, Nick Walker and Michael Wright won their share of tackles, it wasn't enough to prevent Elite from potting three.
"The most dangerous we can be is going side to side, changing the point of attack - the basics of soccer," Escobar explained. "If we spread the field and we can do that, we find the seams to penetrate.
"When we don't do that, that's when we get stuck three against five. It's just a matter of keeping it simple."
PENDLETON'S PLAN: The Lions' decision to employ a lone striker and two holding midfielders was wise - until they fell behind. With the exception of counter attacks and the occasional Elite turnover, the Lions couldn't muster much possession and expended an alarming amount of energy playing defense.
A bending left-footed strike by substitute Ryan Schupp beat Elite keeper Hanford when the Lions were down 3-1, but the Hilbert College midfielder was unlucky to see his shot clang off the crossbar and out.
After the win, Pryce emphasized that Elite did not overlook Pendleton, considering fellow premier side Soho FC were upset by PUFC in the quarterfinals.
"A lot of teams have underestimated lower division teams and they've fallen into a trap and are out of the tournament," the former Elmwood Saints striker said. "We had to give them the full respect and just play like they're our equals, and today we were successful."
GIVE THEM A SHOUT: Pendleton supporters came downtown in droves - roughly 50-60 parents, siblings and friends filled the bleachers at D'Youville, while Yemen brought a solid contingent of 20-25 of their own fans.
Yemen Elite: Billy Hanford, Ahmed Hassoon, Peter Marlette, Maxwell Chirwa, Benti Jodi; Kovan Menr, Mateo Escobar, Layth Alaekada, Steve Ruotsi; Ali Adil, Kerri Pryce. Subs used: Sulemana Ali, Nathan Adamec, Ivan Lara, Jorge Jimenez.
Pendleton United: Sam DelPrince; Allan Wade, Nick Walker, Jake Graham, Michael Wright; Sam Wagner, Mike Juszczak; Jake Ratka, K.J. Maldiner, Dan Mascaro; Kyle Jones. Subs used: Ryan Schupp, Tyler Valentine, Max Balko, Justin Bender, Patrick Miklinski, and more.
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