The Impact Alumni have a leg up on the Forest Park Rangers in the St. Albert Men’s Soccer League final.
Kyle Kuzyk and Jakob Beauchemin scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 playoff cup opener at Salisbury field.
The second match in the aggregate format is 3 p.m. Sunday at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“We look at it as the first game in the series,” Kuzyk said. “Yeah, we’re up 1-0 on aggregate but that doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to come out and win the next game. You’ve got take each game as its own and we’ll be out there doing our best to get the W again on Sunday.”
The Rangers are down but not out after Stephen Schiavone’s goal closed out the loss with four minutes to play.
“Coming in one goal down we’re confident,” Schiavone said. “It gives us a lot of momentum heading into the next game. They’re going to be on their heels.”
The season series was a saw-off between the top two teams in league play. Results were 5-0 Rangers (15-3-1) May 23 and 2-0 Impact (14-3-2) July 4.
“We know the guys really well on the other team and we have a lot of respect for one another but we like to play hard against each other too,” Kuzyk said. “It was a hard fought game by both teams today. It was anyone’s game. There were lots of bounces going both ways, we just buried a couple of chances and they buried one and now we’re onto the next leg.”
Kuzyk’s free kick in the 16th minute gave the Impact the upper hand.
“I just saw some space on the far post and hit it as hard as I could in that corner and the goalie (Matt Bergin) just couldn’t get it,” said the defensive back. “It was nice to get that first goal and be out in front early. It takes a bit of pressure off for sure.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play with a lead but our guys are mature and know what to do and we just stuck to our game.”
The Impact were unable to build on the lead in the first half despite the big edge in ball possession and territorial advantage, plus quality chances by Beauchemin (low shot on the short side glanced off the post in the 20th minute), Ian Scott (two opportunities from close range) and Alex Sinclair (free kick nicked the post in the 40th minute).
The Rangers looked like a different team after the break with more offensive flair and a sense of urgency in their attack. Terry Esposito, the Golden Boot scoring champion in the regular season with 18 goals, zipped past a defender before pounding the ball wide of the far side of the net in the 63rd minute and Craig Cameron’s header nine minutes later cleared the crossbar as the Rangers pressed for the equalizer.
“We’re notoriously a second half team. We start slow,” Schiavone said. “At halftime we definitely had a good team talk and came up with a bit of a different game plan. We played the ball on the ground a little bit more and kept them on their heels. We didn’t let them come at us as much and attacked the ball a little bit more.
“They played really well. They’re tough in the air and they move the ball well on the wings,” Schiavone added. “But we played well and came back at the end.”
In the 80th minute, Beauchemin was the finisher on the insurance marker.
“It’s always nice to be up two. It allows us to play our game and be free and just relax a little bit out there,” said Kuzyk, who narrowly missed the net on a free kick six minutes before Beauchemin, a dangerous striker, slotted the ball past Bergin.
“We kept the pedal to the metal but you’ve got to give full credit to the Rangers. They definitely brought the intensity in the second half. We were a little bit on our heels at times but we held our own and we did what we had to do to get the win.”
As time ticked away, a rising shot by Phil Linehan of the Rangers was punched away by goalkeeper Chris Clarke.
A few minutes later, Schiavone sliced the lead in half with a pivotal marker that could come back to haunt the Impact in Sunday’s deciding contest.
“It was a beautiful ball by Ryan Miller. He just put the ball over the top and for once that (defender) didn’t beat me in the air so we could take off. I just saw the net open so I figured I would hammer it as hard as I could,” said Schiavone of his 11th goal of the season, which was also the first surrendered by the Impact after four playoff shutouts.
The centre-midfielder also tallied three times in Sunday’s 5-3 semifinal decision against the DV Youngmen as the Rangers, formerly the SV Spurs, returned to the final for the second year in a row.
Last year’s playoff cup against Prestige Worldwide was on the verge of being decided on penalty kicks when Keegan Fraser’s dramatic header with only seconds remaining in the second 15-minute extra period clinched the championship for Prestige in the 3-2 win in game two. It was 1-1 at halftime and the score remained the same after the first extra period. Prestige made it 2-1 two minutes into the second period and the Rangers pulled even four minutes later.
“That was definitely a big motivator for us. We want to win the title this year,” Schiavone said. “We headed into the season knowing we were a favourite for the league but we know in the playoffs anything can happen.”
The Rangers were plus-44 in goal differential in 14 matches while going 12-1-1 in the regular season and after Tuesday’s loss the goals for/against for the teams were 74-26 in 19 league and playoff matches
“Everything looks good on paper for us but we definitely had a lot of growing pains. We lost a lot of guys from last season, probably six or seven guys didn’t come back this year, so we had to fill a lot of roster spots. It took a little while to get that chemistry back but as the season went on we just got better and better and we consistently got a good number of guys out which is good in this league,” said Schiavone, 24.
However, at the recent Alberta Soccer Association Tier III provincials the Rangers were outscored 14-0 in three matches with a lineup that was missing some regulars but fortified with other SAMSL players.
“The physical play there was very different from the St. Albert league. There were a lot of hard tackles and a lot of beat-up guys on the field,” Schiavone said. “It was a higher level than we were used to and we might not have been prepared as we should’ve been.”
The Impact (67 GF/31 GA), a new SAMSL entry with lots of familiar faces from previous league teams and the St. Albert Impact rep system, posted a 3-0 semifinal decision against Chester City. Patrick Culshaw scored once and Lake Bossert potted a pair and both are 16-year-olds.
“We’re made up by a bunch of players that have played together at various times in their careers through the St. Albert Impact program. We’ve also got a lot of youth players. We have a good relationship with the youth teams and we really like to pull guys up and let them have a chance to play at this level. It’s a little bit different than playing youth soccer, maybe not as quick, so they bring some speed which is nice for us older guys out there,” said Kuzyk, 28. “It’s a great team and we play for each other and that’s what matters.”
CORNER KICKS: The match between the Youngmen (8-9-2) and Chester (8-11) in the third-place trophy aggregate playoff kicks off at 1 p.m. Sunday at Larry Olexiuk Field.
Tuesday’s playoff opener was eight versus eight between the teams and the Youngmen won 4-0 at Salisbury field.