Saturday nights much anticipated match-up between the Derby City Rovers and the Michigan Bucks certainly lived up the pre-game hype. The perennial league powerhouse Michigan Bucks entered the match in second place in the Great Lakes Division with a record of 5 wins and 1 loss and an impressive 14 goals for versus just 1 against. The upstart Rovers came in with a record of 3 wins, 1 loss, and 2 draws, and sat in 3rd place in the Great Lakes Division.
The Bucks wasted little time showing why they’d earned their reputation as an offensive juggernaut (they’d spanked defending league champs KW United on May 21st by the staggering score of 6-0), scoring their first goal within the opening two minutes of the game. The scoring sequence saw a cross from Adam Najem on the right flank find Russell Cicerone alone at the back post to nod home an uncontested header. From there however, Derby City quickly settled-in to the game and for the next 25 minutes they took control of the tempo with their deft short passing game, dominating possession. Repeatedly building out of the back, they were able to get the ball at the feet of central midfielders Sam Stockton and Serge Gomis, playing the number 6 and number 8 roles respectively. Stockton and Gomis patiently circulated the ball until finding the opportunity to link up with Aleksi Pahkasalo, Keane McIvor, and Matias Pyysalo higher up in the midfield line. Their patience and precision paid off in the 23rd minute when a flowing move released McIvor on the right wing where he cut the ball back on the ground to Pahkasalo about 15 yards from goal. Pahkalso, who came into the game with 6 goals to his credit added another tally as he calmly side footed the ball in the lower right corner past helpless Bucks goalkeeper Tom Lohmann.
Like all the good teams the Bucks’ responded to the equalizer with a strong push to close out the first half, establishing a pattern that would characterize most of the remainder of the match. With their preferred mode of attack coming from overlapping outside backs who flighted crosses into the penalty area, the Bucks began to use long diagonal balls over the midfield to find the runs of defenders Brad Ruhaak and Nick Wysong as they surged forward on the wings. The Rovers countered this approach by maintaining a disciplined defensive shape with Stockton and Gomis policing the central midfield, outside backs Jordan Bates and Moustapha Fofana pressuring the service from the wings, and powerful center backs Daltyn Knutson and Nicholas Marcano well positioned to clear the Bucks aerial barrage. When the Rovers were able to gain possession their approach was again very measured, spreading out to stretch the field, and circulating the ball methodically, waiting for the Bucks pressing to open them up for a quick penetrating combination through the midfield. Where the Bucks favored service from wide positions and a high volume attacking approach, the home side opted to move the ball across the entire pitch, probing and pulling before going for the single devastating thrust. Although the template for the match had become apparent, neither teams approach yielded more goals before the halftime intermission, and the teams went to the locker room knotted at 1-1.
Poised for an exciting second half the teams returned from the break confident their tactics and quality would bring them victory. The Rovers got the crucial break through in the 71st minute when a swift double pass combination in the midfield broke the Bucks pressure and gave Pahkasalo the space and vision to play a ball behind the Bucks backline to a streaking McIvor. The Derby City captain dribbled close and then attempted to slot the ball past Lohmann who’d closed the space quickly advancing off his line. Lohmann stood tall and blocked the effort but a fortuitous rebound caromed back to McIvor for him to provide the finishing touch. Perhaps the lucky bounce was fitting for McIvor’s first goal of season since he’d regularly been on the end of quality chances but had been prevented from opening his scoring account by deflections, defensive blocks and goalkeeper saves. “It was a relief to score after coming close so many times this season,” said McIvor, “but I always believe in myself to score because I put the time in, always staying after training for extra work on finishing. You keep doing the right things and the odds have to turn in your favor so I never doubt it. With the quality of the players we have in this team I know I’m going to get chances.”
With the Rovers leading 2-1 going into the final 15 minutes of the match and a raucous home crowd cheering them on as they tried to repel one of the league’s marquee sides, the stage was set for an exciting finish. The Bucks continued their aerial assault though in a key half-time adjustment, Derby City Head Coach Lee Chalmers had instructed his side to prevent the opponent’s efforts to feed the ball into their deep midfielder who had supplied the diagonal balls to the overlapping backs to great effect in the first half. The result of this move was that the Bucks outside backs weren’t able to get forward as high or as frequently, and though the onslaught of crosses continued they were coming from midfielders and forwards who had previously been free to flood the box. With less attacking runners to contend with, Rovers goalkeeper Brandon Eagle and his resolute backline found it easier win the Bucks crosses and limit the number of clear chances they created. That is until stoppage time, when former Rovers forward, and current Bucks leading scorer Andre Landell, equalized off a corner kick. The corner initially went over the top of everyone to the back edge of the six-yard box where Alexi Souahy headed it back across the goal for Landell, who’d come unmarked to finish with a close range header of his own. The score was tied 2-2 in stoppage time, and the Bucks brute-force, high volume crossing approach had finally paid off.
The disappointment of the home crowd, who moments before were preparing to celebrate a signature win, was palatable. Heads hung, and the stadium was hush except for the shouts of the invigorated visitors who’d waited over 90 minutes between their two goals. Like a team that knows what it’s like to lift the league trophy—Michigan won the PDL championship in 2014 and were regular season champs last year—the Bucks sensed the shift in momentum, and pressed on hoping to grab another goal and seize all three points. This night however, the spoils would go to the Rovers as fortune would smile on the home side once more. With Michigan throwing more numbers forward into the attack the Rovers managed to loft a clearance over the top of the high-pressing Bucks where a determined Stockton, a product of the Rovers Youth Academy who will transfer from Indiana University to the University of Kentucky in the fall, gave chase in an effort to win the vital loose ball. The Bucks had only their two central defenders and their goalkeeper, who’d moved near midfield in support of the attack, behind the ball. When Stockton was able to win the ball ahead of the first challenge and flick it forward toward the center line, Cory Thomas, inserted at forward in the second half for Guilherme Fanck, fearlessly charged at imposing defender Lalas Abubakara and Lohmann. Somehow the Bucks players got their signals crossed in classic “I got it. No you take it” fashion and Thomas stormed right through the pair to pick up the ball with nothing but 50 yards of turf and an open goal in front of him. Seemingly moving in slow motion, Thomas dribbled the ball all the way across the goal line as the elated crowd erupted at the stunning turn of events. The final whistle quickly followed and the Derby City Rovers had recorded one of the biggest victories in the club’s history, 3-2 over the Michigan Bucks. “Coach always tells me to just go right at the defence, use my pace to put them under pressure and I’m going to score,” beamed Thomas, another Rovers Youth Academy graduate now plying his trade at Indiana University. Thomas has scored 4 goals in his role coming off the Derby City bench.
With the win the Rovers move to 4 wins, with just 1 loss, and 2 draws on the season. Their 14 points through the first half of the season eclipse their point total each of the two previous years and moves them to just 1 point behind the Bucks for 2nd place and 4 points behind KW United, the defending PDL Champions and current Great Lakes Division leaders. “Tonight’s win, on the heels of last week’s 4-3 loss at KW under difficult circumstances, shows that when we perform we can compete with anyone in this league,” reflected Chalmers. “Those are really good teams who’ve earned success because they’re well-coached and have some very talented players. But we have quality players too, players that fit our style. We’re playing the kind of skillful football that’s the basis of the club philosophy and producing some really outstanding team goals. Just look at our first two goals tonight. They came from good ball movement and intelligent attacking runs. Now against a strong team like the Bucks you’re definitely going to absorb some pressure no matter how much quality you have. But the key for us was staying organized and we were always composed on defense. We cut out passes and forced difficult shots and low percentage crosses where we had numbers in the box. In the end the winning goal, yes it was fortunate, but our performance had gotten us to that point in the match and our determination got us a positive outcome. That’s football.”
Next up the Rovers will host KW United on Tuesday, June 21st followed by a home rematch against the Bucks on June 28th. Those two matches will be critical as they look to continue turning heads and climbing the standings during the 2nd half of the season. “From day one we’ve said it’s one game at a time and every game is important,” stressed Chalmers. “That consistent focus is part of what it means to be a professional, which is what we’re here to teach these players.” The Derby City Rovers, competing in their 6th PDL season altogether, and their 3rd under current management, are seeking their first playoff appearance in the club’s history. The top two finishers in the Great Lakes Division will qualify for the playoffs where they will meet up with the other qualifiers from the rest of the 64 team league which spans the US and Canada. Tickets for the Rovers remaining home matches can be purchased by visiting RoversSoccer.com.
Rovers Serge Gomis fends off a would be challenge from the Bucks Adam Najem