Looking to earn a spot in the United Women’s Soccer National Final, Midwest Conference Champion Grand Rapids FC faced off against East Conference Champion Long Island Rough Riders in the second of two semifinals on Friday evening at Grandville High School.
Grand Rapids FC fell behind on two occasions to the Rough Riders, and twice GRFC fought back to equalize, including a diving header in the 119th minute of play.
Playing through a pair of overtimes and still knotted at 2-2, the match headed to penalty kicks where the Girls in Blue advanced 3-2. The match started out slow for Grand Rapids, and the hosts found themselves in an unfamiliar situation as they fell behind in the 9th minute.
Long Island forward Erica Modina was able to slip behind the defense and beat GRFC keeper Reilley Ott to the ball by a step, chipping it over and into the back of the net.
The visiting side nearly doubled its lead in the 14th minute as some quick, one-touch passing set up a Rough Riders forward one-on-one with the goalkeeper Ott. Ott stepped up and made the big save though, allowing the deficit to remain just one. The save got the Girls in Blue back into the match, and in the 15th minute, they earned a penalty kick as Bethany Balcer was taken down in the box. Stepping up to the spot to take the kick herself, Balcer beat the keeper into the left side netting to level the score.
GRFC nearly took the lead in the 22nd minute as a free kick from Michaela Kovacs found the head of Balcer. The Long Island keeper did well to get to the ball though, saving the shot before it could slip into the top corner of the net.
In the second half, Ott made another big save in the 54th minute as a Long Island striker had an open look on goal that was turned aside.
“Reilley stood on her head again,” said head coach Lewis Robinson. “She looks at her angles so quickly, and she has done that every game this season – she’s been good for one or two game winning saves a night.”
Both teams pushed for the go-ahead goal, with Long Island’s best chance coming in the 74th minute on a shot just over the bar, and Grand Rapids’ most dangerous threat a shot from Marti Corby that was saved and a rebound by Balcer blasted just wide in the 79th minute.
Neither team could pull ahead through 90 minutes of regulation, however, and the match headed into overtime.
In the first overtime, Avery Lockwood had a pair of chances that just missed the target. Substitute Lizzy Paul also had a long range effort that threatened the opposing keeper but was saved.
After 15 more minutes of scoreless play, the visitors finally found a breakthrough goal in the 107th minute. Within a span of 30 seconds, a pair of shots hit the crossbar for Long Island. After the second crossbar effort, a rebound shot was turned aside by the GRFC defense, but the Rough Riders were not to be denied on a second rebound attempt as Francesca Venezia found the back of the net.
With just over 10 minutes to play, Grand Rapids began to push numbers forward. Anna Stinson had a shot saved in the 112th minute, while an effort from Corby in the 114th minute was wide of frame.
The Girls in Blue then found an equalizer in the 119th minute from an unlikely source. Holding possession on the right side, Stinson played a cross fast and low in front of Long Island’s goal. Diving to meet the ball was the captain Kovacs, up from her center back position, to provide the tying goal.
“In the 119th minute, all you want is a quality ball, something that gives the girls inside the box an opportunity to fight for something,” said Robinson. “Anna put it in a stamped envelope on (Michaela’s) head. That’s probably one of the only people you want it to fall to at the end of the day, is Mouse.”
The two teams then headed into penalty kicks, with Grand Rapids electing to kick second.
Both sides saw their first two spot kicks find the back of the net, with Lockwood and Annie Steinlage converting for Grand Rapids. After the third round saw each players miss for their respective side, Long Island’s fourth kick taker hit the crossbar and saw her effort bounce out, while Stinson beat the opposing keeper to put GRFC up 3-2.
The fifth player in the Rough Riders’ order then saw her shot saved by Ott, sending Grand Rapids FC on to the national final.
“It was a super physical match, Long Island came out ready to play, they were high press which caught us off guard a bit,” said right back Clare Carlson. “I think we responded well, and it was a battle back and forth the whole time. It’s incredible when you get on a team that can respond the way we have been. It’s a great feeling and it builds the momentum which allows you to keep pushing through.”
“What an amazing night, what an amazing game, what an amazing finish,” added Robinson. “They hit the crossbar five times, they had chances, we had chances, and then we finished with a diving header in the 119th minute from a center back is incredible. You can’t write the script.”
Grand Rapids FC will now match up with Santa Clarita Blue Heat on Saturday evening, again at Grandville High School. Santa Clarita defeated Detroit Sun FC 3-0 in the first semifinal on Friday.
“We celebrated for about 90 seconds, and now we’re going to try and turn ourselves around for tomorrow,” said Robinson. “We’ll use some of the players that maybe didn’t play as much today and try and be as fresh as we can. We’re looking forward to it.”
Kickoff for the National Final is set for 7:30 p.m.