BDSL premier side Yemen Elite took the do-or-die nature of Tehel Cup to heart, jumping all over division one's Panthers with two goals in the first five minutes en route to a 2-0 victory. Elite advances to the Elite Eight of the oldest men's amateur soccer tournament in the United States.
"I told [my team] it's win and move on or lose and drop out, and I put the pressure on them to win this game, and they did," said Elite manager Faress Saleh following the match.
After a narrow miss by Panthers 30 seconds into the match, Yemen Elite's Chris Griffiths (Iroquois HS, Medaille) scored his first goal of the season in the second minute, and then Sami Kassem struck on a nicely orchestrated counter attack by Adel Rahman (Niagara) just three minutes later.
On the first tally, Griffiths' anticipation and persistence paid dividends.
"I wanted to press high and I saw the back pass and just went for it," Griffiths said of pouncing on a Panthers turnover. "My first shot looked like it was going in, so I celebrated a little early, but I stuck with it and beat the keeper on the second shot."
The initial shot, a low left-footed bouncer, caromed off the post, but Panthers goalkeeper Matt Smith was slow to track the long rebound, and Griffiths collected on the other side of the six-yard box and solved Smith from close range.
"[On the rebound], my first thought was to play the ball across to someone trailing in," Griffiths explained, "but [the keeper] didn't come out, so I just stayed composed."
"I want to give Chris credit because he hasn't had a goal all season, and he was really hard on himself and considered leaving the team because he couldn't score goals in premier," Saleh added, "but I kept him here, pushed him hard and said, 'You're staying in and you're going to get a goal.'"
The silky touch and smart distribution of Rahman helped Elite double their lead, as the Purple Eagles' midfielder picked out Sami Kassem in space, and the goalscorer used his pace to outrun a Panthers defender (see lead image) before picking out the low right corner.
Panthers didn't cave when facing a two-goal deficit, though. Dave Tredo's veteran team, which has conceded only one goal all regular season in division one en route to an 8-0 record, started to dominate possession, led by the Buffalo State men's soccer coaching staff, Mark Howlett and Francesco Cardillo.
Chances followed, too, as Jerome and Alex Lee Yaw both had good looks at goal, while several services into the box challenged Yemen Elite goalkeeper Scott Augustine. Howlett and Cardillo found some joy in switching the point of attack to the opposite wings, but the final ball proved elusive.
Despite missing three starters from their spine -- center back Koby Sapon-Amoah, who was pulled over before the match, captain and center mid Mateo Escobar, who was coaching for West Side International Soccer, and productive forward Ali Adil -- Yemen Elite's back four of Zach Schlei, John Etter, Abdelraouf Mohamed and Mahmoud Kassem bent but never broke in front of Augustine. It was Yemen Elite's first shutout in 11 matches on the season.
"We caught [Panthers] flat-footed in the beginning, the first five minutes," Sami Kassem said. "They came back - I think they had better possession, probably had the better game, but we played very good defense."
"Defensively we weren't too good in the beginning of the season, but now we're talking more, and [it] definitely [helps that] the midfield is tracking back."
Yemen Elite will now play the winner of the Clarence Yotes and the Amherst Sharpshooters, the premier leaders whom they upset two weeks ago. Either foe will present a difficult match, but the win over Panthers continues to push Saleh's team (3-2-3, 5th place in premier) in the right direction.
"[The win] gives us confidence," Sami Kassem said succinctly. "[Panthers] were 8-0 coming in to this game, and we shut them out. It's a big confidence boost."
*Without Escobar available, Yemen Elite ran its offense through Rahman and Sami Kassem, who both had terrific matches. Kassem, in particular, was constantly around the ball, harassing defenders with his quick feet and deceptive feints.
*Both Howlett and Panthers star Kurt Schulz, a former safety for the Bills, left the match early due to injuries. Panthers' attack suffered from their absences.
*16-year-old Nathan Adamec, signed at the transfer deadline from Dutch FC, made his debut for Yemen Elite in the second half.
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