It's hard enough to stymie one of the region's best amateur clubs 11 vs. 11, but to try it with only nine players is asking the impossible.
A 44th-minute red card to BSC Raiders' Ryan Walter and a 68th-minute sending off of Kendell McFayden left the home side down two men, and Phoenix Majors nervously held on for a 2-1 victory in front of roughly 150 fans on a gorgeous Sunday at Nichols. Phoenix advances to the Region 1 semifinals of the USASA Amateur Cup on May 1.
Both Phoenix Majors goals were scored by target striker Ben Castor, who pounced on a bad giveaway in the 63rd minute and then, off a cross from Fre Kamara, tucked under BSC keeper John Netter in the 82nd minute.
With Phoenix running out of gas late, Polo Suazo loped forward and drew a foul 19 yards from goal. Raiders center back Matt Waddington curled the ensuing set piece inside the near post to cut the deficit to one with five minutes left, but the equalizer never came.
"It's tiring playing down 10 men and then down to nine men," admitted Waddington, who recently played professionally for Niagara United in Canada. "It's a long time to be down men. It's tough."
Ryan Walter's straight red card was earned through a studs-up tackle through the right leg of Kamara, who crumbled to the turf clutching his ankle. Despite Raiders' pleas, the center referee held the red card aloft, further complicating the underdogs' quest. It was Walter's second consecutive match earning a first-half red card -- the physical midfielder was sent off against Italian-Americans SC of Rochester after picking up two yellows in succession, but avoided suspension because that play-in game was not an official USASA contest.
"Playing a quality opponent, emotions are running high and Ryan got whacked, then ended up coming back and making a tackle," Waddington explained. "I thought he got most of the ball -- he did get the guy as well -- but in that situation you use common sense and give a yellow instead of a straight red, especially that early in the game."
The refereeing was a constant object of scorn throughout the match, as Raiders manager Rocky Palmeiro had choice words on several occasions, and Waddington lent an earful at the halftime break.
"I don't like admitting it, but it seemed like the ref wanted to make that game about him," said Chris Walter, Ryan's brother and BSC teammate, when asked if the referee decided the game. "It's tough to win a game when a ref has such a big influence on it. I think we would have played well with them, full squad vs. full squad, for 90 minutes -- maybe even come away with a different result. It's a big 'what if?''
While possession heavily favored the Eastern Pennsylvania team for most of the match, Raiders were not without a prime scoring chance. With about five minutes to go in the first half, Waddington joined the rush on the right wing and drove a 35-yard cross on a dime to McFayden, who directed his volley just wide of the back post.
Otherwise, Raiders spent most of their energy defending, often needing help to contain the pacy and crafty Kamara, who was found time and time again in isolation by Phoenix's central midfield trio of Sean Sheridan, Jack Pocorobba and Pete Pittaoulis.
In the first half, Kamara sped to the end-line and crossed to Danny Murtagh for a would-be sitter, but the veteran put it wide with his left. As the half progressed and Kamara continued to get behind the Raiders' back line, BSC keeper Netter did well to limit space for Kamara to shoot near post, but remained quick enough to at least get a piece of his crosses.
Key shot blocks from John Grabowski, Waddington and Jake Rinow all helped keep Phoenix off the score sheet into the second half, until Castor capitalized on a Colin Begy miscue, dribbled around Netter and poked the ball in the open net.
With a one-goal lead and only two subs available, Phoenix slowed the pace to a crawl. BSC manager Rocky Palmeiro injected life into his squad through substitutes Suazo, John Occhiuto and Troy Brady, who all showed composure on the ball and forced the visitors to react rather than anticipate. The hurdles would get higher, though.
McFayden picked up two yellows in quick succession, crunching Nick Pittaoulis after he'd gotten rid of the ball, then allegedly sticking his right cleat into Phoenix goalkeeper Matt Rominger as they vied for a bouncing ball in the 18-yard box. Raiders players contended that McFayden was simply trying to get the ball and not instigating contact, but the referee disagreed.
Castor added an insurance goal when Kamara again accelerated to the end-line and served a low cross for the unmarked striker to tap low under Netter's dive.
"To be honest, I hate to say it, but the reds might have helped us," Chris Walter reflected after the match. "Obviously losing players isn't good, but once we got [fewer] players on the field, we settled down and we looked better, we started playing the ball to feet.
"First half, we didn't do that -- every ball was long to the corners, making Kenny [Kendell McFayden] up top run," he continued. "Once we lost a couple bodies, we settled down -- when you go down two men, what else are you going to do but keep fighting?"
"It was a good effort -- we made it interesting in the end, and that's all you can ask for being down two men," echoed Waddington.
With the loss, both the Buffalo District Soccer League's representatives for the Amateur and Werner Fricker cups have been eliminated. FC Yemen, winners of the local Tehel Cup, dropped a 3-0 match to Christos FC of Maryland last Sunday. Phoenix Majors will face Christos FC, which is participating in both tournaments, on May 1.
"[Phoenix] I thought was very good," Walter said. "It was cool to play against a better caliber team from a different area. I would have liked to see where we would have gone after today, but it's the end of the road for us."
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who welcomed a lot of Vitamin D today, at firstname.lastname@example.org