KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Going from the altitude of Real Monarchs SLC’s Zions Bank Stadium on Wednesday night to a late-afternoon kickoff against the Swope Park Rangers on Saturday, picking up essential road points toward its push for the playoffs this week was going to be a challenge for Saint Louis FC.
After earning four points out of six to move into the playoff positions after a 4-3 victory against the Rangers, however, STLFC laid down the gauntlet to its fellow contenders with one of the more impressive weeks of the season.
“It was tough,” said Pulis. “There was obviously a large emphasis on recovery. We had to travel as well from Salt Lake City to Kansas on Thursday. There was a recovery session when we got to the hotel on and then we did a light session yesterday and a lot of video. Kudos to the guys.”
For all the work the side did in the two days since its draw with Real Monarchs SLC, though, it was the tactical decision to rotate more than half the lineup between the two games that may have paid off most. Only goalkeeper Tomas Gomez, defenders Tony Walls and Sam Fink, and midfielders Lewis Hilton and Wal Fall started both contests, with six newcomers inserted into the lineup for Saturday’s game.
Two of those – Hilton and Walls – teamed up for what proved a crucial goal deep in first-half stoppage time after the Rangers had initially let a lead claimed through Hadji Barry’s goal midway through the first half slip away through a defensive error that allowed Michael Cox to equalize. Awarded a free kick on the left corner of the penalty area, STLFC’s Hilton produced an almost-inch perfect free kick that instead of finding the net clipped the angle of the crossbar and left post. The rebound fell kindly to Walls, who headed home instinctively to put the visitors ahead.
The squad rotation also meant Pulis had the opportunity to bring two of the side’s key attacking pieces off the bench, which paid off handsomely as STLFC stretched its lead in the second half. Joey Calistri scored with almost his first action in the 59th minute, the first to react to Fall’s near-post flick of a long throw-in to put home a close-range finish, then leading scorer Kyle Greig struck just four minutes after coming on in the 78th minute as his sharp turn of a marker opened up space for a driving run and finish to make it a three-goal lead.
Those insurance goals proved crucial as Swope Park responded with a pair of goals in the closing stages that almost saw the hosts fight back for a draw, including a fine curled finish by Ethan Vanacore-Decker in stoppage time for the rookie’s first professional goal, but the Rangers held on the rest of the way to pick up a major road win.
“It’s a mammoth effort to come on the road to a place like this and get a victory like this,” said Pulis. “They deserve an enormous amount of credit and it’s the way they’ve worked all year. They’ve been a fantastic group to work with. Swope is an extremely good team, so extremely proud.”
With three of the club’s remaining four games this season at home, including what will be another pivotal clash next Saturday night against fellow playoff contender San Antonio FC, there remains work to be done for STLFC over the final month of the season.
Now given a 75 percent chance to claim a place in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs by fivethirtyeight.com, however, the club’s road ahead now rises toward a first trip to the postseason.