Grand Rapids FC hosted AFC Ann Arbor in the second meeting of the season for the two first-year NPSL clubs on Friday evening. And, for the second time in two meetings, it was the home squad winning 3-1. This meeting, however, had a little more at stake than the first.
Grand Rapids FC entered the match with an opportunity to clinch the top spot in the Great Lakes West Conference heading into the NPSL playoffs. Up a point on AFC Ann Arbor and three points on Detroit City FC, a win over Ann Arbor would allow the Boys in Blue to clear the Mighty Oak by four points with one game remaining for Ann Arbor, and six points over Le Rouge with two games remaining for Detroit City with GRFC holding the head-to-head decision tie-breaker in hand.
Win is exactly what GRFC did, although after 45 minutes of play in Friday night’s match, it appeared that neither squad would budge.
Grand Rapids saw a number of chances within a half-hour of the opening kick but could not find the back of the net. In the 27th minute, winger Tyler Fischer played a ball into the box off a corner kick that found the head of defender Peter Brown. Brown’s header, however, was off the post and cleared away.
Minutes later, a curling shot from midfielder Jared Timmer was just punched over the bar by the Ann Arbor keeper.
In the 38th minute, a chance was created for the visitors in the form of a half volley from distance, but the ball sailed over the cross bar and did not threaten the Grand Rapids goal.
The match then changed drastically within a minute of the start of the second half. Forty seconds in, AFC Ann Arbor took the lead as Leigh Rumbold found the back of the net off a corner kick from James Vaughn.
“This team has been a great example of belief, they never quit even though we were down” said GRFC head coach George Moni about his squad. “I think the Ann Arbor goal unlocked the situation, because the game was locked in a tactical shape in the first half. After that goal, although we had to give up a goal early in the second half, we sharpened up.”
“We knew the moment they scored, we just had to fix it, we can’t dwell on the mistake,” added defender Tarwo Konbloa. “After that we were all on the same page, giving people directions, telling people who to mark and where to go.”
The team belief led to a GRFC response ten minutes later. In the 56th minute, Jared Timmer headed in the equalizer as a long throw-in from defender Trent Vegter found him wide open at the back post.
“Trent and I went to high school together so we had a little connection,” said Timmer. “I knew he had the long throw and we made eye contact when he went and grabbed it. I pointed back post and he threw right to me and I just had to tap it in. It was an easy goal – great throw.”
AFC Ann Arbor nearly retook the lead in the 70th minute. A long free kick from Dario Suarez was parried wide by Grand Rapids keeper Noah Fazekas, but pouncing on the rebound was Ann Arbor forward Willie Bayemi. After making the first save, Fazekas proved to be up to the task of the second as well, regaining his footing then dropping low to stop the second shot from Bayemi.
Grand Rapids then found the break through five minutes later. Forward Scott Doney flicked a ball on with his head that looked like it was going to roll harmlessly to the visiting keeper. But, streaking in from the far side to meet the flick at the top of the box was Noble Sullivan. Swiping the ball from the reach of the keeper, Sullivan took one touch to gain control then used the second to find the back of the net and send the 6,854 in attendance into a frenzy.
“We know that Scott is great with his feet, but we also know that he’s a threat for the ball that goes into him and he flicks it on,” said Sullivan. “So I knew that if I could catch the defender unawares, I might be able to get in on one of those flicks, and his movement was great and I was just the beneficiary. What can I say, to score that goal, it was a magical moment.”
After some end-to-end action, the Boys in Blue then sealed the victory in the first minute of stoppage time as Nick Abdoo found a wide open Gabe Mateo who slotted the ball past the AFC Ann Arbor keeper to bring the game to its final 3-1 scoreline.
“The crowd helped us when we went down,” said Sullivan. “We had self belief, the crowd believed that we could come back, we’ve been in this situation a couple times before, so we had faith in each other and we stuck to the game plan and it all came to fruition at the end.”
While many might point to these 90 minutes as the defining moment of the season thus far, this result has been in the works for months.
“I sent out an email (to the players) back in March and I laid down the plan – our philosophy, our playing style, our expectations, our player expectations by role – then I said, ‘I believe in what we have in the talent pool, our ambitions are high and our expectations are very high’,” said Moni. “We’re very pleased. You set high expectations, you roll up your sleeves and you work hard.”
Despite having the top spot in the conference secured, the hard work is not finished for the Boys in Blue. Grand Rapids has one more match remaining in conference play, with Lansing United scheduled to visit Houseman Field next Friday before the Blues advance to the NPSL playoffs.
Kickoff against Lansing is set for 7:45 p.m.