After playing six matches in the 305 it was finally time to hit the road and see what the rest of the Sunshine Conference had to offer. First up was a drive north to Palm Beach Gardens to take on Palm Beach United. Obviously when you play in a national league away trips are hard because the USA is massive. So being able to drive for an hour or so to a road game was pretty fantastic. A stop was planned at Funky Buddha Brewing on the way to catch the Champions League final. Everything looked pretty perfect but as usual the day was ruined by the weather. An absolute monsoon blew through South Florida that day and while that made the drive up the I-95 a bit hairy. It also made the conditions less than ideal for soccer.
Soaked through in seconds of leaving the Dade Brigade bus we took our position in the stands and the game kicked off. We let off a smoke grenade and the weather was so bad that the local cops wouldn’t dare to leave their golf cart to admonish us. A stern finger-wagging was all we got. Palm Beach United were good. The pinnacle for some local academies, they had a team that could mix some decent technical play with some physical stuff. It would take a Don Smart penalty to come away with a 1-0 win and all three points. Particularly satisfying as we had to play 30 minutes of the second half with ten men after yet another dismissal, Coy Craft picking up two yellows in as many minutes to get his marching orders. Absolutely terrible conditions to play a game in but the two sides made the most of it. Palm Beach would have a big say in how the top of the table would take shape over the coming weeks, beating Miami United in Hialeah and taking a win when they hosted the Armada. PBU ultimately finished 4th, the best of the rest you could say, and if a couple of other results had gone their way they might have even sneaked into 3rd and the playoffs.
The games were coming thick and fast now. Just four days later the FC faithful ducked out of work early to travel to Central Broward Stadium for a game with Storm FC on a Wednesday evening. The stadium is a strange place. It’s not that it isn’t a good facility but it is very unusual in that it is first and foremost a cricket stadium. Yes you read that right. It may actually be the largest cricket specific stadium in the USA. Soccer crops up here occasionally. A few of us had been here before for the Florida Cup and it even hosted an NASL game in 2017 post Hurricane Maria when Puerto Rico FC and the Cosmos played here. The proceeds for that game went to hurricane relief efforts. PDL side Floridians FC were here before they folded a couple of years back and of course the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers were tenants before their sad demise. So there is a little South Florida soccer history here.
Storm FC call it home currently. Similar to Palm Beach United, Storm is the elite Floridian arm of an initiative called Kaptiva Sports Academy. They’d played the 2016 NPSL Sunshine conference and finished mid-table, sat out 2017 and would finish bottom in 2018 with one point. The Sunshine Conference was a tough place to be in 2018 if you were a developmental team. Anyway on to the game. With a few players rested it gave some of the squad players a chance to shine. One player in particular would seize his chance and push himself into Dalglish’s thoughts for the rest of the season. Central midfielder Tomas Greco was a new addition for the NPSL campaign signing on from the school where we were playing our home games, St. Thomas University. Tomas is a crafty little centre mid with good feet and a great range of passing. He ran the show at Central Broward, playing the full 90 and pinging the ball around like he was playing on FIFA . You could talk about the quality of the opposition but it was obvious the lad could play a bit.
Pic courtesy: Tomas Greco (Instagram)
After a slow start Chavez and Smart grabbed a brace each either side of a Kris Tyrpak strike. Suarez added a 6th just before injury time at the end of the game, then Dylan Mares ruined all possible cricket related puns by scoring a 7th goal right at the death. So no ‘Miami FC hit Storm FC for 6’ headlines were possible but it was back-to-back wins with Boca Raton away next.
Boca Raton FC are great club run very smartly by Douglas Heizer and his crew. Since 2015 they’ve built something good in Boca and they draw a decent-sized crowd for this level. Boca is wedged in-between Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale and there’s always been a pretty strong local identity there. The club feeds off that. Pregaming was sometimes difficult in this conference but this game was a gem. Played on a Saturday for once right next to one of South Florida’s finest craft breweries, SaltWater. Once we had some beers and figured out who was shuffleboard king (Magic City Soccer’s Matthew Bunch is, in case you are interested, a shuffleboard hustler) before filing into the stadium at Atlantic Community High School.
There had been the usual thunderstorm before the game and the pitch was the only downside to the whole afternoon. It looked like 80 minutes of rugby had been played on it. Sometimes that can be a leveler but there were to be no surprises in this game as Miami ran out 5-0 winners. Chavez scoring twice in the first half hour, Mares adding a third before half time and then a goal apiece from Martinez and McFarlane after the break. Credit to Boca for trying to play an open game, they had some good players and again the area’s Brazilian demographic was also very evident on the field but Miami were too good. Never afraid to spring a selection surprise, Dalglish opted to start keeper Ryan Herman over Daniel Vega. Perhaps he took one look at the pitch and thought better of risking his #1 before the upcoming showdown with Jacksonville. Herman didn’t have much to do but made a couple of smart saves when called upon.
Pic courtesy: Miami FC
It would be a tough season for Boca, they finished 6th of 7 with three wins. Two against Storm and a home win over Naples United. They did though grab a draw in their very next game, tying Miami United 1-1 away with the equalizer coming in injury time. MUFC were starting to experience a real Open Cup hangover. Before that game, Miami FC 2 blew their chance to go top of the conference by coming back from Jacksonville pointless.
The NPSL’s fixture computer hadn’t been kind with the Jacksonville trip, 7pm on a Wednesday night at the start of June. It was to be a watch party and the Miami FC faithful met up at Wynwood Brewing in hope more than expectation. After three games that turned out to be reasonably straightforward it was going to be a big ask to go to Duval and make it 4 out of 4. A few miles away, Miami United were getting a lesson off Orlando City in the Open Cup and a win against the Armada would put us clear at the top of the table. A draw would have been a good result. But it wasn’t to be. This would be the only game all season that FC would fail to score in. Jacksonville were pretty good that night, keeping it tight at the back to protect the lead they gained early on through Derek Gebhard who picked the pocket of the Miami defense after a rare moment of indecision from Rhett Bernstein and Tyler Ruthven. The evening would get worse for Rhett in the second half when frustration boiled over and he got his marching orders for a rash challenge. Clear serious foul play and another straight red. Even with 10 men Miami poured forward looking for an equalizer but the Armada held firm.
Since the Sunshine Conference is 7 teams in size we’d have to sit out the games on the weekend following the loss to Jacksonville. But without kicking a ball we’d be given a boost as both our rivals dropped points. The Armada blew a chance to jump us in the table, going down 4-2 at Palm Beach and Miami United playing out that 1-1 draw with Boca Raton FC. Once the dust had settled on the games of Saturday, June 9th the top of table looked like this.
After a long stint on the road we’d now play 4 of our remaining 5 games at home starting with a visit from that tricky Palm Beach United side. United and Jacksonville would play each other in Hialeah. The top three would qualify for the playoffs. 2nd would play 3rd for the right to travel to the table-toppers in the final. The race was on.
The game at home vs. Palm Beach was really a microcosm of our season. Slow to start, we were blindsided by a goal for the visitors after 25 minutes. That woke the team up and there was an instant response from Super Dario Suarez. 1-1 at the half and that second goal was proving hard to find. Dalglish had his hand forced after Coy Craft picked up an injury. He’d only been on the field a few minutes as replacement for starter Jeff Michaud. There was only one man on the bench to send for. Jonny Steele.
The Ulsterman was one of the holdovers from the NASL days and is another cult favorite with the fans. The experienced midfielder was coming back from a long injury lay off. He came on, lifted the players around him and changed the game. Moments later we were ahead through Jaime Chavez. The extra quality finally rose to the surface, Chavez and Tyrpak got a couple more and the scoreline ended 4-1. A day later United and the Armada would play out a 1-1 draw. Now FC2 were just one point behind United with a game in hand, plus there was clear daylight between them and 3rd placed Jacksonville. The brief was clear, win all remaining games and no one could stop us.
Pic courtesy: Miami FC
First up was Storm FC at home. This time the boys from Lauderhill put up a much better showing, keeping things very tight in a 2-0 win for Miami. Suarez and Typrak got the goals. Taking a well earned rest in this game was Tyler Polak. An arrival from FC Cincinnati, Tyler had locked down the left back spot all season. On the other flank there were options. Ruthven, Smart and McFarlane all able to play there. But Tyler is such a consistent performer it was hard for rookie Shadi Atassi to get minutes. Not that Shadi was a bad player. Far from it. The 21 year old local boy had a stint in Argentina with Boca Juniors no less. When he got on the field he did very well, he had a good showing in the 5-0 rout of Boca Raton and put in a good performance against Storm too. A capable understudy to Mr. Consistent Tyler Polak. We loved Tyler. He earned the nickname Pitbull for his distinctive shaved head and he certainly had a lot of bite going forward, reveling in his attacking fullback role he was always a part of the build up down the left hand side.
After completing the double over Storm, FC2 had perhaps the last serious challenge of the regular season to overcome. A midweek trip to Naples United. This was not a glamour tie. Naples United were playing out of a high school next to a place called the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. To the other side a farm and a golf course. With the usual thunderstorm clouds lurking it felt like the game was being played at the edge of the Universe and any errant clearances would go flying off into another dimension. That would happen when Jaime Chavez missed a first half penalty. Thundering his effort into the swamp sanctuary. A keepsake for the alligators, a match used NPSL ball. No one was brave (or stupid) enough to try and retrieve it. Miami looked lethargic initially, maybe the weekend off had done more harm than good? To give them credit Naples were well organized and hard working. A goalless first 45 might have had us on edge but news filtered through in the second half that the Armada were being held 2-2 at home by Palm Beach. Maybe a draw wouldn’t be a bad result if they were tied up too? Jacksonville got a winner in the last ten minutes. If they won and we drew it would be bad. It would mean we would probably finish the regular season level on points and they’d lock down 1st place as the tiebreaker was head-to-head record. Since they’d taken four points off us, they’d be in the driving seat.
Remember the doubt, the nausea and the nerves? Welcome to the second half of Naples United vs. Miami FC 2. Our game was running a little behind theirs so we had time, but the time was running out. The ball just wouldn’t go into the net. Naples wouldn’t comply. Passing our way through wouldn’t work. Swinging in crosses wouldn’t work. Long range efforts were going miles off target and that clock was ticking down quickly. It amazing how the perception of time differs when you’re 1-0 up and seconds feel like hours. Yet when you need that goal minutes feel like moments. On the 87th minute one man would step up and be a hero. A corner was won on the right and it was lifted in to the box dangerously. The keeper stayed on his line. One player reacted quicker than everyone else. Boot meets ball. Ball meets net. One man was wheeling away in elation. It was Mason Trafford. Redemption. What a great time to score your first goal in Miami colors. It may not have been the most elegant goal but in the context of the whole season it was certainly one of the most important. With just three minutes of the 90 left the game was closed out comfortably. Fingernails gone but three points in the bag and most importantly, noses ahead of Jacksonville.
Three days later at the same stadium at the edge of space Naples would do us a huge favor by beating Jacksonville by the same 1-0 scoreline. It was another weekend for Miami FC 2 to sit out but it gave us a very easy brief at the start of July. Win the two remaining home games against Naples and Boca and we’d finish in first place no matter what our rivals did. A lovely evening’s soccer on July 3rd saw FC cruise past Naples 2-0. Dario breaking the deadlock at the end of the first half before Jaime doubled the scoreline in injury time as Naples were piling forward looking for the equalizer. First place was assured with a real feel good 5-0 drubbing of Boca at the end of the season. The guys could put their feet up for a well-earned rest. We’d host the area playoff final against the winner of Armada and United up in Jacksonville.