By Kim DeRaedt
This weekend was supposed to decide which team would rise to the top of the Southern Premier Soccer League (SPSL) standings and establish itself as the club to beat, but Galveston and Tulsa decided to draw one and save the other game for added suspense and debate in the new year. In the meantime, Club America waited only one half before pouncing on Corpus Christi and claiming a decisive victory.
Let’s start with what we know. Club America Academy has taken flight. The young birds have found their wings and soared through their last two matches. In particular, the team’s offense has been predator-like and snatched seven goals in its last two outings after amassing only one goal in the club’s first four franchise appearances.
Hardly a stranger to the scoreboard nowadays, Club America didn’t take long to find the back of the net in its 4-1 victory over a struggling Corpus Christi Fuel crew. Club America drew first blood, but head coach Thiago Costa Reis wasn’t about to get comfortable, especially after his side saw a 1-0 lead morph into a 2-1 deficit against Texas Lonestrikers the previous week.
“The first goal is obviously huge, but it’s not everything,” Reis said. “It gave our guys confidence, but at the same time, Corpus Christi wasn’t about to back down. They came here convinced that today was the day they were going to pick up their first points.”
The momentum that Club America gained wasn’t enough to kill the Fuel’s strong will. The score line still read a narrow 1-0 at the half when Reis’s words of wisdom were called upon once again to motivate his squad.
“Maybe the guys just like hearing me talk, but I wish they’d stop waiting until the second half to kick it into full gear,” Reis said. “I don’t have the magic words. I just told them that we are going to have to start putting our chances away. The longer we let Corpus Christi stay in the game, the more they start believing and the harder the match becomes for us.”
In a similar fashion to Club America’s 3-2 comeback victory against the Texas Lonestrikers, the Houston boys once more shined brightly in the second half. They exploded for three goals to the Fuel’s single tally to walk away with a decisive three points in hand.
Indeed, fans at USA Soccer Park were treated to quite the four-goal showing by their hometown heroes, but fans in Tulsa and Galveston supporters were seeing double, a pair of four’s that is. Surprises abounded as the league’s two remaining undefeated teams, both recognized for their stingy defenses, battled to a 4-4 draw.
Tulsa’s Pedro Colina opened up the game with his 10th minute goal. For a Lobos FC team that has yet to concede a goal, it would’ve been easy to deem that Colina had tallied the game-winner. With 80+ minutes to play, however, this was not the case in the slightest.
Instead, what followed was a four goal eruption in a short 20-minute stint with Pirate SC recording the majority of the damage. Captain Roy Hernandez detonated the offensive barrage in the 15th minute to bring his league-leading goal tally to 10. Almost as if Tulsa was taken aback by Pirate SC’s audacity to score past the wall that is goalkeeper Hector Zapata, Colina struck once more just five minutes later to reclaim the lead for the hometown gang.
Apparently Felipe Escobedo and Dustin Botting didn’t get the memo that goals against and Lobos FC weren’t compatible as the duo converted their respective opportunities. Escobedo pounced on a loose ball from a corner kick chance that was never successfully cleared and tucked it away from seven yards deep. Botting soon followed suit to ensure that Galveston entered the locker room on top at the half.
However, a 3-2 lead was scarcely comforting as Pirate SC prepared to push through the blustery conditions playing against the team in the second half. Head Coach Brendan Keyes wasn’t about to let a little wind blow over his side’s first place point total.
“We pride ourselves on playing the ball on the floor,” Keyes said. “Sure we had the wind advantage in the first half, but we dominated the entire game. When the wind is against you, it’s not a big deal if you play proper soccer on the ground and that’s we do best.”
Instead of worrying about the wind blowing and field conditions playing against the team, Keyes and Pirate SC soon realized that the whistle blowing and the referee’s decision playing against them would expose itself as the pertinent storyline of the game.
Galveston shouldered the first blow when Tulsa’s Abed Elkour converted a penalty kick opportunity in the 51st minute. Luis Hernandez stepped up big to produce a wonder shot that landed perfectly in the upper 90 from 20 yards out. With just 10 minutes remaining, a depleted Galveston team sans six starters effectively held off Lobos FC’s last-ditch effort. However, for anyone who thought added time or the job of the fourth official was frivolous in soccer, Galveston and Tulsa now have a different appreciation for the illuminated red number.
Feeling the two minutes of added time had expired, Keyes was preoccupied penciling in his team’s three points when suddenly the referee signaled for a questionable penalty kick in Tulsa’s favor. Elkour approached the spot and brought the game level at four goals apiece in the waning seconds.
“We were robbed,” Keyes said. “Our guys were disgusted and heartbroken. We travelled over 10 hours with 14 players, were without half of our starters and scored four goals against a stalwart defense. To not come out on top because of something like that is beyond belief.”
Despite the hardship, the bigger picture looks much brighter for Keyes and company.
“We’ll take the positives out of the match,” Keyes said. “We showed everybody that we are the team to beat. Next time we’ll be at home and have our main players back. In the meantime, we just want to see the SPSL be successful and play a leading role in that. There are three, maybe four, teams that can vie for the top spot. We’ve done the hard work to get to the top, but the true test is staying there.”
There may very well be some table reshuffling after this weekend’s matches. For the first time this season, every team will be in action and have the chance to make a statement of its own. Each of the top three teams will contend with one of the bottom dwellers. Galveston will return to its crib to host Corpus Christi, and Club America will venture to Regals FC’s grounds. Tulsa crosses the Texas border to play Lonestrikers in a double header. The top dogs will look to hold their spots and not cross the pond into the league’s lower lands, while the struggling sides attempt to make a leap of faith into winning territory. A weekend jam-packed with SPSL action has soccer fans throughout Texas saying “Amen”.