Thursday, August 24, 2006
TAMPA, FL -- “I was one kick short of a double,” said veteran USL striker Dustin Swinehart of the Charlotte Eagles who spent time on loan to the Richmond Kickers in the USL First Division last season and nearly helped two teams to league championships in one year.
When Charlotte and Richmond take the field Saturday, it will be a meeting of two veteran clubs, both formed in 1993, that have intertwining histories that are uniquely their own, but still similar. It is a tale of two different experiences in 2005 finals and a story of a pair of teams that have never before met in postseason play despite only missing the playoffs twice each over the past 14 years.
“I know all of their secrets,” kidded Swinehart about the possibility of having an advantage for his Eagles for Saturday. “Being familiar with some of the guys is helpful, but they have new guys that are doing really well. It’s which team can put it together on that day that will be the difference. Besides, they know how I play too, and we played each other enough this year to know how we all play.”
2005: A Tale of Two Different Finals
Just a year ago, both sides were in their respective championship matches, but the experiences were vastly different despite both going to penalties. Charlotte finished second in the league and had won five of their last six of the season while the Kickers struggled down the stretch with a winless mark of 0-4-7 in their last 11, finishing in the last of six playoff spots.
A 1-0-3 record saw the Kickers through to the final where they played the Seattle Sounders to a 1-1 draw in which Sascha Gorres blasted a beautiful strike from 30 yards out to give Richmond the lead. The Sounders struck back to level the game and ultimately took a 2-0 lead in the penalty kick tiebreaker. The Kickers fought back to tie it up in penalties only to see their fate sealed in the seventh round when goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale’s shot clanged up off the crossbar.
An odd scoring pattern in the USL Second Division final saw Charlotte score in the first and final minutes of regulation with Western Mass scoring within two minutes on each side of the halftime break. For the second straight year, Charlotte would go to penalties in the championship to decide a winner, having fallen the previous year. Eagles defender Ben Meek, who played a pivotal role with the equalizer in the final moments of the game, netted the winning shot in the sixth round of penalties to give the Eagles their second title.
Chasing a Third Championship
The story for these two teams goes well beyond two games from last year however. Both searching for a third championship in what is their sixth appearance each in a final, the timing is vastly different. Charlotte has captured both of their USL Second Division titles in recent years, winning last season and in 2000. Richmond, meanwhile captured the double in 1995, winning what is now the Premier Development League and the US Open Cup championship.
Both sides also simultaneously reached their respective finals in 1996 with Richmond falling in a shootout to the California Jaguars in the Select League, the higher of the two 3rd division leagues at the time. The Eagles fell in a shootout to the Charleston Battery in the Pro League, the lower of the two 3rd division leagues, which merged the following year into what is now the USL Second Division.
The Eagles immediately returned to a title game, playing for the 1997 championship, but did not raise a cup until 2000. They then spent three seasons in the USL First Division before returning to the USL Second Division in 2004 and immediately returning to the final, where they continued their current run of four straight USL Second Division championship appearances, an unprecedented run. Richmond wouldn’t return to a final until 2002, when they fell in overtime at Milwaukee.
An Intertwining History
The intertwining history of the two clubs has them playing together for the sixth season this year after previously spending the 2001-03 campaigns as members of the USL First Division and their first two years of existence as amateur sides in what was a one-league USL at the time. All told, the two have squared off 19 times over those six seasons without a single postseason fixture. Richmond holds a 9-5-5 overall record in the series with a home mark of 4-2-3 and a 7-3-5 advantage for Leigh Cowlishaw as a coach against Mark Steffens.
The one tangible link between the two teams from last year other than the symbolic finals appearances of both is veteran USL forward/midfielder Dustin Swinehart. A prolific scorer over the years and five-time All-League player, Swinehart has served double duty on occasion by playing for both teams over the previous two years.
“It was great,” said Swinehart of the experience. “I was really thankful to be able to do it. It’s a really good relationship between the teams and coaches. Hopefully both really enjoyed it as much as I did. I know the guys on Richmond really well now and I’m really happy that it’s our two teams in the final.”
On loan to the Kickers, he played eight regular season games with a goal and an assist over the two years and appeared in three of the four playoff matches in last year’s playoff run before missing the final in Seattle, which proved too far from his wife who was expecting their third child that weekend.
Renewing the Series
Richmond dominated the season series this year with a 3-0-1 record, winning the first two by two goals, playing to a 1-1 draw in Charlotte in the third and taking a 2-1 victory at home the week before the season came to a close. The unbeaten run for the Kickers extends through to their USL First Division days with their last defeat coming in the final meeting of 2002 – a run of 5-0-3.
Defense and momentum were the themes of what Charlotte needs Saturday to break the Kickers unbeaten run in the series.
“Efforts are going into defending well, especially early,” said Charlotte head coach Mark Steffens. “The key is trying to defend well as a unit because they have a good attacking six. Robert Ssejjemba was always a handful against us.”
“We played a lot better against them in the last couple. It’s a hard thing to decide why that happens. Get a little momentum and hold onto it. Momentum has a lot to do with the game and seems to change constantly throughout. The more possession and the more momentum we have early, the more we have a chance at competing with them.”
“They have a ton of guys that are great threats offensively,” said Swinehart. “Can we do the things to shut them down will be the task. This year against them we did not capitalize on opportunities and Ssejjemba scored a bunch of times. If we can slow him down a little bit. I think we can stop them offensively. We have created some really good chances that we didn’t finish, but in part we have to tip our hat to Ronnie Pascale who’s made some really big saves.”
The Eagles will need that defensive mentality as Cowlishaw and the Kickers are sticking to the game plan that got them to the final and are hungry for a championship after coming close twice in the previous four years.
“I think we have been focused on winning a championship for 3-4 years and it hasn’t happened for whatever reason,” said Cowlishaw. “You gotta go out and play the game. If we don’t bring our ‘A’ game, Charlotte will win, that’s the kind of team they are.”
“Doesn’t really matter what’s happened in the past or future,” added Cowlishaw about memories of last year’s final or how they have done against Charlotte this year. “We just want to win every game. We’ve been very close on a couple occasions. We just wanna finish the job now. We’re at home, we’re the favorites, and the pressure is on us - but we relish the opportunity.”
Steffens didn’t feel a hunger for a championship would give the Kickers an edge.
“We have eight or nine guys who haven’t won a championship, so the edge goes to Richmond for a number of reasons, but maybe not for that,” said Steffens. “Their personnel is the cream of crop. We have to be at the top of our game to compete with them. If we open sluggish, they are very good at finishing and a couple mistakes by us and we could be down in a hurry. We are the underdogs and I kinda like that position.”
That’s exactly what the Kickers have in mind.
“We are going to be playing our game by going out and attacking, maintaining possession,” said Cowlishaw. “It is a high pressure, attacking style. We put a lot of energy into that. They play a very similar style with several players who can put the ball in back of the net as well.”
But the one player who has shown the ability to do it all year in the entire league will be wearing the red of the Kickers. Robert Ssejjemba went from three goals in 22 games last year to a league-leading 17 goals in 19 games this season - quite a drastic improvement.
"The main difference is he knows he’s starting and doesn’t have to compete against a Cephas, Delicate or Jeffrey,” said Cowlishaw. “He grasped that opportunity and has thrived off that confidence and has been scoring well all season. The team around him has provided excellent opportunities - the service has been exceptional for him this year.”
Ssejjemba scored four goals in their four meetings against Charlotte this year as he led the team to the regular season championship, and picked up scoring accolades that had been previously dominated by Swinehart and scoring partner Jacob Coggins, the league MVP the last two seasons - the pair Cowlishaw was eluding to. Both dropped off significantly in the scoring this season while the team as a whole became a bit more balanced statistically.
“Jacob missed quite a few games with a broken foot,” said Steffens about his low numbers and impact this year. “He had a slow start then the broken foot made it even slower.”
“Dustin moved to mostly wide right midfielder because we didn’t have anyone else to get job done there,” Steffens added. “Whitey’s done a good job there and it doesn’t show in points. It took away in his point total, but the scoring has been more even across the team. We created quite a few opportunities this year but haven’t finished like in the past. But, we came out scoring well the last few games in a trend we hope to continue.”
The Eagles scored four on the road in the semifinals last weekend to open their series against Pittsburgh following a trend that also saw the Eagles score more on the road this year than at home.
“I actually like being on the road with this group,” said Steffens. “A wide field plays to our advantage and strengths and our home field is pretty narrow. If Richmond plays at the top of their game, they are tough to beat and when you’re home you’re doing a million things. They are good distractions, but distractions nonetheless. We are more focused on the road with no worries. It is a great group to travel with.”
Given the history of the two from last season’s finals and the fact that two straight USL Second Division finals have gone to penalties, the dreaded tiebreaker is part of the picture for both coaches.
“We’re set to go on pks - we’ve been practicing the last two months,” said Cowlishaw. “Ronnie we feel we can rely on for a couple saves. We’ve done pk shootouts in front of a lot of people before so we are ready for that.”
“You always have that in the back of your mind, and so many games are decided by that in the finals,” said Steffens. “Hate to see it. We have prepared for it a few times, but we don’t focus on it. I didn’t enjoy winning that way or losing that way - takes away from the victory.”
The USL Second Division Championship, featuring the defending champion Charlotte Eagles visiting the regular season champion and 2005 USL First Division finalist Richmond Kickers, is Saturday, August 26 at 7:00 pm ET. The game will be broadcast LIVE on Fox Soccer Channel.