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Ventura County Fusion Defeat Chicago Fire for PDL Title

2009 August 9
by Brian Quarstad

Saturday, August 8, 2009 – USL Soccer.com

VENTURA, CA — The Ventura County Fusion won the 2009 USL Premier Development League title Saturday night at Buena High School, beating the Chicago Fire 2-1 despite playing for nearly an hour with just 10 men. Fusion midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan scored the winning goal deep into injury time to send the sellout crowd into raptures.

“It’s a wonderful night for us, and a good advertisement for the game,” said Fusion head coach Graham Smith. “We battled well. We were pushed onto the back foot after the red card, but that galvanized us to stay strong. It’s a great night for Ventura, but really this belongs to the players. They performed in brutal weather down in Texas last week, and really played well tonight. This is their night.”

His comments were echoed by Fusion general manager Ranbir Shergill, who said; “This is an exceptional night. To score a last-minute winner in a championship game is amazing, and something very special.”

Ventura had come into the championship game having lost just two matches all season, finishing third in the Southwest Division and sitting in the position of the 20th overall seed in the postseason because of the plentiful ties in their 7-2-7 campaign. But that did not matter as they battled through five postseason encounters to become the lowest-seeded team in league history to win the title.

After making the postseason for the first time in their three-year history, they disposed of local rivals Los Angeles Legends and Hollywood United Hitmen in the divisional playoffs. And then they traveled to Laredo, Texas, where they beat Northwest Division champions Kitsap Pumas, 2-1, in similar dramatic fashion on a stoppage time free kick in the league quarterfinals before demolishing the Bradenton Academics 6-1 in the semifinals.

Chicago, meanwhile, secured their ninth trip to the playoffs in nine years by finishing second in the Great Lakes division. They took care of Forest City London and Kalamazoo Outrage in their divisional playoffs before traveling to Des Moines, Iowa, where they overcame Ocean City Barons and Cary Clarets to secure their second trip to the championship game. Chicago had previously reached the PDL national final in 2002, where they were beaten by the Cape Cod Crusaders.

In front of an impressive crowd of over 2,000 at Buena High School, with the sun setting behind the mountains, and with a cool Pacific breeze chilling the evening air, Chicago and Ventura took to the field.

Chicago head coach Larry Sunderland was forced to make one change to the lineup which beat Cary in the semifinals last weekend, Kyle Knotek replacing midfielder Richie Balchan, who was out with an injury. Ventura similarly made just one change to the team which outplayed Bradenton, defender Adam Smarte replacing Armando Guerrero, who dropped to the bench.

The first five minutes of the game saw Chicago in the ascendancy, applying pressure to the Ventura back line, and with Kyle Knotek looking especially dangerous down the right wing.

However, it was Ventura who took the lead in the ninth minute, against the run of play, when Rodrigo Lopez’s deep corner found Ivan Becerra unmarked at the back post. The defender directed his header low past Chicago keeper Jimmy Maurer and into the back of the net.

Ventura could have doubled their lead three minutes later when Anthony Hamilton latched onto Lopez’s neat through ball, only for the 2009 PDL Goalkeeper of the Year to spring off his line and smother the shot at the edge of the penalty area. Maurer was called into action several times during the first 20 minutes, saving from Hamilton twice more, and getting his body behind the ball to deny Dylan Riley.

Chicago seemed surprised at the constant Ventura pressure, and looked shaky at the back. Ventura, conversely, were growing in confidence. Irish winger Bryan Byrne was giving Chicago right back Barry Rice a torrid time with his pace and skill, while Danny Barrera and Anthony Hamilton were making nuisances of themselves with some clever passing and tenacious hustle.

Everything changed, however, in the 33rd minute, when Ventura midfielder Manny Guzman was given a straight red card after clashing with Chicago midfielder Mark Blades. Once the dust had settled and the pushing and shoving had stopped, Ventura coach Smith was forced to rearrange his formation, dropping Danny Barrera back into midfield to cover Guzman’s absence, and leaving Hamilton alone as the sole striker.

Sensing blood, Chicago pushed forward looking for an equalizer before the break, and almost got it when Kyle Knotek’s cross from the right reached Mark Blades, whose header was saved easily by Brian Hill in the Ventura goal.

Ninety seconds later, Ventura could have potentially been given a penalty when Barrera was pulled down in the box, but referee Alejandro Mariscal waved play on, and the first half ended with Ventura 1-0 up, but a man down.

Looking to capitalize on their numerical advantage, Chicago coach Sunderland made two attacking changes at halftime, bringing on talented midfielder Justin Morrow in place of Kyle Knotek, moving striker Andy Adlard over to the right wing. He also replaced midfielder Seth Sinovic with striker Chris Cutshaw to bolster the attack.

Chicago went for Ventura’s throat, and almost equalized in the 50th minute when defender Barry Rice had a golden opportunity, but put his shot over the crossbar. Adlard and the energetic Morrow were causing the Fusion defense all sorts of problems down the flanks, but were unable to break down the solid back four. Dillon Barna was especially impressive at the heart of the Ventura defense, effectively marking Andre Akpan out of the game.

Ventura had a couple of half-chances on the break, with Danny Barrera shooting just wide from 20 yards, and later almost forcing an own goal out of Chicago defender Grant Campbell after he had linked up cleverly with Rodrigo Lopez and Anthony Hamilton.
Lopez and Hamilton combined well again later, when Lopez’s deep cross looked certain to fall kindly for Hamilton, only for Chicago keeper Maurer to pluck the ball off the big striker’s head.

However, as the half wore on, Chicago’s numerical advantage was clearly beginning to bear fruit, and it seemed only a matter of time until they equalized. Chris Cutshaw blazed a shot over the bar from 10 yards with the goal at his mercy, and five minutes later Adlard’s low cross from the right streaked across the Ventura six yard box but could not connect with any of his attackers.

It was Andre Akpan who finally evened up the game in the 74th minute, stretching out a toe to beat the otherwise flawless Dillon Barna to the ball and deflect Mark Blades’ cross past Hill and make the score 1-1.

It was sweet vindication for Chicago captain Blades, whose every touch had been booed by the Ventura fans following his red card clash with Guzman in the first half.

With 15 minutes remaining in the game, Chicago pressed for a winner, while at the other end, Fusion clearly didn’t fancy the idea of having to play extra time against a team with more men, and were looking to win the game in 90 minutes too.

Both teams had chances to win it. Justin Morrow missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on a Ventura defensive giveaway, skewing his shot wide. Dillon Barna saw his header off a free kick saved, and Anthony Hamilton was inches away from connecting with Motagalvan’s pinpoint through-ball, only for Maurer to be fast off his line again.

With just four minutes remaining on the clock, Chicago missed their most clear-cut opportunity yet as Chris Cutshaw hit the crossbar with his shot from six yards out after Morrow had forced Hill to parry the ball into his path.

And still the chances came. With just seconds of regular time remaining, Ivan Becerra found himself in space at the right side of the Chicago penalty area, but took one too many touches on the ball trying to find a better shooting opportunity and saw his moment pass.

In the 90th minute, more controversy arose when Rodrigo Lopez was cut down in the Chicago penalty area, and for the second time referee Alejandro Mariscal waved play on, incensing the Ventura bench. Having already sent Ventura assistant coach Ole Mikkelsen to the stands, Mariscal then asked Chicago head coach Larry Sunderland to also leave the field, to the bemusement of both benches.

In this cauldron-like atmosphere, there was the sense that something was coming, and so it did. In the second minute of injury time, and with extra time looming, Ventura were awarded a free kick close to the right touchline. Rodrigo Lopez lofted the ball into the crowded penalty area, and it was half-cleared by the Fire defenders, but only as far as Dillon Barna on the left wing. Barna sent the ball back into the six yard box, where a scramble ensued, and somehow Fusion captain Alfonso Motagalvan managed to get his foot on the ball, make a clean connection, and send a shot past a flailing Maurer to restore Ventura’s lead.

As Motagalvan wheeled away in rapturous celebration, the Ventura bench cleared to celebrate with him. Ventura head coach Graham Smith was sent off in the aftermath for entering the field of play – the third coach sent off on the night. But in the end it didn’t matter. Ninety seconds later Mariscal blew the final whistle, the packed stadium erupted, and Ventura had won the most unlikely of titles.

In addition to becoming the lowest-seeded team ever to win a PDL title, Ventura returned the league title to California for the first time since the San Gabriel Valley Highlanders won it all in 1998.

And as the fans, players and staff of the team drifted away into the night, celebrating the team’s historic victory, one couldn’t help reflecting on the definition of the team’s name: fusion. The coming together of disparate elements to form a cohesive whole. And, on this night, it was a team that included players from as far afield as Armenia, Mexico and Ireland, who were brought together in Southern California by an English coach and general manager, and became the best PDL team in the United States and Canada.

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