PONTIAC, MI - The Michigan Bucks thrilled a huge crowd at Ultimate Soccer Arenas Friday night with a last second goal that sent the match to a thirty minute overtime that would prove to be one for the ages. The Bucks 3-2 win over the Des Moines Menace set up a rematch of last year’s Central Conference championship match with the Thunder Bay Chill on Saturday night (7:30 PM kick off) at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac. The Chill were hosts of the Conference Final Four last year in Thunder Bay where the Bucks advanced to the title game with a win over Rochester before falling to the Chill 2-1 in overtime.
Friday night’s match was a track meet from the opening whistle. As expected both teams relied heavily on their attacking side to try and open the match but Des Moines’ plan was clear from the beginning that defense was the focus. The Bucks came out attacking and had the better chances early with the speedy combination of Luke Holmes and Lucky Mkosana wreaking havoc in the Menace box. On the flip side the Bucks knew they had to keep tabs on strikers Lebogang Moloto and John Sosa.
It appeared the teams were going to half time scoreless when Moloto took a pass at midfield right before the halftime whistle and took on two Bucks defenders before sending a cross onto the head of strike partner Sosa. Sosa’s header was saved by Bucks keeper Mitch Hildebrandt but as the ball spun through his hands he deflected it and appeared to have secured the save. The referee’s assistant ruled the ball, in mid air, crossed the plane of the goal line even though when the ball came to rest it was inside the six yard box. “There is no way that ball crossed the line,” said a disappointed Hildebrandt. The Des Moines goal was the first goal registered against the Bucks at home this season and was a tough one to swallow. “If you are going to make that call, you better be sure the ball was actually over the line,” said Bucks coach Gary Parsons. “There was no way that either official was in a position to tell whether that ball broke a plane because Moloto broke so fast they were behind the play. It is a judgment call that you hate to have go against you, but at the end of the day that goal should not break our back,” added Parsons.
With the Bucks down 1-0 at halftime it was time for their experience to take over the game and their maturity to be the guiding force. The Bucks outshot the Menace 11-2 in the second half and continued to try and break down their solid defense. While the team would continue to press it was late in the game when the repeat Great Lakes Division champs would finally break through. Second half sub Tom Mellor took a ball down the left side of the pitch in the 90th minute, beat two defenders and sent a laser cross into the penalty box that Bucks leading scorer Tom Catalano headed home to ignite a frenzy in the huge crowd at Ultimate Soccer Arenas. “I knew it was going to happen,” said Catalano. “It was just a matter of time. We never even looked at the clock to put pressure on ourselves. We could see that they were on their heels and we needed to just keep hammering at them.”
As regulation ended at 1-1 and the teams headed to a thirty minute overtime it appeared the Bucks had the momentum behind them. That came to a screeching halt when defender Kofi Opare was given a straight red card for a tackle from behind and Des Moines was awarded a penalty kick in the 103rd minute. When Sosa put his second goal of the game past Hildebrandt from the penalty spot things looked bleak for the Bucks fans. The team however, did not seem to notice the set back. Two minutes later Catalano would send a dangerous cross into the box where Bucks substitute Latif Alashe headed home his first goal of the season and the all important game-tying goal as the first over time stanza came to a close.
It was at that point when things changed in the Bucks favor for the first time on the evening. Menace goal scorer John Sosa was red carded for abusive language at the end of the first over time, leveling the teams at ten men each for the final fifteen minutes. “That was the game changer,” said Parsons. “We had the momentum but we were still playing down a man for 15 minutes. When he goes off on the ref, he not only evens the sides but he gives us a huge momentum boost in our team huddle. The boys knew at that point we were going to finish this before we had to go to penalty kicks.”
To the crowd’s delight the Bucks did just that. Second year Bucks attacking mid fielder Scott Caldwell took matters into his own hands with nine minutes to play. The Akron captain, who scored the game winning goal in last December’s 2010 NCAA College Cup National Championship game ripped a shot from 20 yards out that took a deflection past Menace goal keeper Jhojan Obando for a 3-2 lead. All that was left was to salt away the rest of the match with a solid defensive performance so the Bucks could join Thunder Bay for a rematch of last year’s Central Conference Final.
The Chill beat the Chicago Fire Premier 1-0 in the earlier match on a Luis Gonzalez goal in the 37th minute to put them in the conference final on Saturday. Thunder Bay lost to the Portland Timbers U23 team in the PDL final last year on the heels of winning their only PDL title in 2008. The Bucks and Chill will face off at 7:30 PM at Ultimate Soccer Arenas with the winner representing the conference at the 2011 PDL North American PDL Final Four on August 5-6 (venue TBD). Tickets for Saturday night’s championship match are $10 all ages (5 and under free) and are available at the door at Ultimate. For more information please visit the Bucks web site at www.buckssoccer.com.