AFC Cleveland hosted Sonoma County Sol FC in the 2016 NPSL Final at Alumni Field in Independence, Ohio on Saturday evening. The match was well-contested by the two teams and left a sizable crowd purring after the final whistle. The home side claimed the championship trophy with a 4-2 win, but it took nearly the full 90 minutes before AFC Cleveland could find a lead.
Cleveland captain Admir Suljevic spoke highly of his teammates’ ability to keep focus despite the difficulty of their path to the national title.
“With what we went through the last few weeks, it’s unbelievable,” Suljevic said referring to playing a man down against AFC Ann Arbor and playing against Grand Rapids in front of their home crowd. ”To pull through last week with the rain delays was another story fortunately we won. We gritted through this one too. For the work throughout the season, I give credit to all the guys. We’ve come from behind in a lot of games, especially last four to five games. All the credit to them, they don’t stop, they never give up and we did it.”
AFC Cleveland Starting XI: 4-1-4-1 (R-to-L)
Anthony Flowers; Chris Cvecko, Declan McGivern, Coletun Long, David Jordan; Mike Derezic; Tom Beck, Brian Potocnik, Antonio Manfut; Vinny Bell
Sonoma County Sol FC Starting XI: 4-2-3-1 (R-to-L)
Sean Taufer; Edgar Amador, Justin Ferreira, Jared Robbins, Nicholas Lombardi; Luke La Vanway, Nicholas Spann; Diego Lopez, Noah Paravicini, Brenton Frame; Taylor Varnadore
Both teams probed cautiously in the opening minutes but AFC Cleveland quickly capitalized on the energy of their home support to assert an early confidence. Largely against the run of play from the first quarter hour, Sonoma County Sol FC shocked their hosts on a corner kick.
In the 15th minute, center forward Taylor Varnadore headed home the opening goal from close range. Sonoma hit a corner kick to the far post that was headed back towards Varnadore, who was open at the near post. From about six yards out, Varnadore powered a header into the back of the net as Cleveland’s Anthony Flowers couldn’t get over quick enough on his line to make the save.
After going ahead, Sonoma County played with maturity in midfield. The visitors from California showed much better buildup with patient possession, finding low-risk passes but playing one-twos and creating space for teammates both wide and inside. As the home team was getting frustrated in the middle of the field, AFC Cleveland original Vinny Bell produced a moment of pure quality.
Winger Tom Beck hit a pass up the left wing towards Bell with the outside of his right foot. Up top by himself, Bell dribbled at his defender into the 18-yard box, cut inside on multiple Sonoma defenders before finishing with his right foot back at the near post. Bell was able to turn his hips at speed in order to fire accurately across his body past goalkeeper Sean Taufer.
After a couple off-target attempts, Cleveland winger Antonio Manfut forced Taufer into a save in the final minute of regulation in the first half. Manfut hit a 40-yard shot on the bounce that Taufer turned behind for a corner kick.
The second half started contentiously, with both teams committed to making hard challenges in midfield. When the fans on hand in at Alumni Field began to feel consigned to a low-scoring game, Sonoma County caught Cleveland napping in the back.
In the 59th minute, Varnadore scored his second goal of the game to retake the lead for the visitors. Sonoma’s midfield played a ball from their own half over the top of Cleveland’s defense. Varnadore took the ball out of the air well on the dribbled and finished with a calm in-step shot under pressure from center back Coletun Long.
While the momentum was very much with the visitors, winger Diego Lopez had a great chance to double their advantage. In the 62nd minute Lopez missed just wide of Cleveland’s net when his team had the inertia. Cleveland goalkeeper Flowers had come off his line but his center back tried to play a square pass across the back four. Lopez intercepted the poor attempted pass, cut onto his right foot, but dragged the shot wide of the largely open net.
“I thought it was a really even game and I think if a couple of breaks go our way, we could have been taking home the big trophy tonight,” said Sonoma County Sol FC head coach Vinny Cortezzo. “We went up a goal, 2-1 and had a great chance to go 3-1. If we bury that one, I think we grab hold of the game. Unfortunately we didn’t and it goes the other way.”
Just a minute later, Vinny Bell scored his second on a corner kick. In the 63rd minute, David Jordan took a corner kick that appeared to be deflected wide of the near post and a Sonoma defender missed an attempted clearance about seven yards from goal. Bell crashed the net and forced the ball in to equalize the match for the second time.
After the game Bell said, “We’ve had a lot of adversity in the playoffs. We knew we were going to get our chances, that’s the bottom line. We knew we had to make something happen fast but we definitely knew we weren’t out of it. This team is never out of it. We went down last week and we’ve come back before. We all believed in each other and it worked out.”
“Absolutely after we scored the second goal, and I think the crowd saw it too, momentum definitely shifted to us,” added Suljevic. “Sonoma had us a lot of times during the game and they kept the ball well. But I think after the second goal, it obviously shifted and we were just pressing, pressing, pressing to win.”
After the AFC Cleveland hero tied the game again, both teams began making substitutions to try to create the go-ahead goal. In the 73rd minute Lopez forced Flowers into making a diving save on a shot destined for the upper 90 at the near post. The ensuing corner bounced inside the area before a Sonoma attacker executed an aerial scissor kick that was saved and held well by Cleveland’s goalkeeper.
Visiting goal-scorer Varnadore also popped up to make an impact on the other end of the field, as well. Varnadore helped his defense preserve the score by clearing a Cleveland corner from his own 6-yard box with ten minutes left in regulation.
“We just sort of ran out of gas. Honestly I think our travels had an impact as well. We were on the road to San Diego, on the road to Chattanooga, and then on the road here. Back-to-back east coast trips, red-eye flights, and all that. I think it took a toll. We just looked a little tired tonight,” Cortezzo observed.
In the 87th minute, Antonio Manfut crafted the eventual game-winner with a low, drilled shot from the left side to the near post beating Taufer. With his second assist of the night, Beck received a pass while running into the Sonoma area before finding Manfut in space on the outside of the area with a clever backheel pass. Manfut took a touch to the inside and opened a shooting lane for his pinpoint right-footed effort late in the game to give Cleveland its first lead of the night.
Manfut credits his dad for instilling in him the confidence to keep shooting even if he doesn’t find the net initially. “Ever since I started playing he just told me to keep shooting the ball and he trusts me, so that’s what I do. If it’s off, it’s off, but one of them is going to go in and it did,” Manfut said.
While celebrating his goal, Manfut hit the turf with a cramp and was replaced on the field by Ryder Bell. As Sonoma County pushed players forward in search of a late equalizer, Cleveland’s fresh legs were able to exploit space behind the defense and Ryder Bell finished on the counter attack. Sonoma goalkeeper Taufner was able to get a touch on the shot but couldn’t prevent the 92nd minute insurance goal as Ryder Bell was clean through on goal from 40 yards out.
Both teams battled hard until the final whistle but any sense of competitive aggression flew out the window after the match. AFC Cleveland players consoled their opponents and congratulated them on making their final run while cheering them on during the second-placed medal presentation. Likewise, Sonoma County Sol FC players congratulated their hosts on a well-earned championship and clapped for them as they lifted the trophy.
AFC Cleveland head coach Carter Poe emphasized his team’s determination after the game.
“We went down but you never know what’s going to happen. With this group – they just fight so hard and we talked about that before the game, ‘We were down last week so no matter what happens just keep going, keep going, keep going.’ And that’s what we did and just kinda stuck with it, stuck with the plan,” said Poe
Other Notables and Quotables
The stands were packed at Alumni Field. The official attendance for the 2016 NPSL Final was 2,205.
- “Obviously, it’s huge,” Suljevic said about the support on Saturday night. “During the game you can hear the crowd and I’ve never seen this many people at our home games.”
- “It’s awesome to see that kind of turnout in Cleveland,” Bell said. “Soccer’s been gone for so many years here and I’m just glad we can get it back on the map and bring home a national championship in front of all our fans.”
Because of the regional playoff format, Cleveland did not host a postseason match despite winning its division.
- “No better first playoff game to ever host than winning the national championship in front of them,” Antonio Manfut said after the game.
The match-winner also stressed that lifting a trophy with his teammates was even more meaningful because they’re probably not going to play together as a group again.
- “This is it, now we all go our separate ways. Some guys go back to college. I’ll go back to playing indoor. I know guys go back to work,” said Manfut. “I mean, that’s why it’s just a great time winning the championship with these guys. They’re like family now. I might not get another chance like this again but we won this time and that’s all that matters.”