By Anthony Mannino
The playoff deciding match between the Austin Aztex (9-4-2) and El Paso Patriots (6-6-2) was sluggish, tense, and even down right boring at times, but for the Aztex it didn’t matter. A 1-0 victory over the Patriots clinched a playoff berth in the club’s first season.
Heading into the match, the winner of the game knew they would be in the driver’s seat for a playoff position (for the Aztex it would advance them to the playoffs) along with the Laredo Heat. El Paso owned the head-to-head record, 2-1, over Austin before the game; and unlike many leagues, USL PDL’s tiebreaker goes to the better head-to-head record, not the higher goal difference. So the fact that the Aztex owned a +27 goal differential and El Paso’s was only +3 didn’t matter.
Still, the strange tiebreaker ruling didn’t matter in my opinion, because the Aztex were in control of their destiny with a win guaranteeing a playoff spot. A tie meant Austin’s fate was still in their hands, but they would have to beat New Orleans on July 14.
Both teams played nervous to start the match knowing that a mistake, which would happen later, would cost their club the game. El Paso’s strength was their wide players Naoyas Aizawa and Sergio Villasenior. The two caused problems, particularly in the first half, when they would cut inside looking to shoot with their stronger foot – a move that Arjen Robben has perfected for Bayern Munich. The Aztex made adjustments at halftime; and in the second half, Matt Boullt shut down Villasenior by forcing the Patriot player to dribble down the sidelines.
While the Austin defense was stronger in the second 45 minutes, if it wasn’t for Devin Cook, the Aztex could have easily tied or lost the game. His consecutive saves on Villasenior and Michael Griego kept the game scoreless at halftime. Sunday night Cook made the save of the season, topping his previous save on June 27 that preserved the 2-1 victory in Laredo, when he denied Griego’s header in the 87th minute. The save proved even more crucial a few moments later after William Morse’s goal silenced the El Paso crowd, minus the few Austin fans in attendance.
On a side note, the fact that fans are willing to travel to El Paso and New Orleans the past two weeks really proves that the city of Austin loves soccer.
While the two sides were unwilling to take risks early in the match, Enrique Cervantes gambled to try in keep the pace of the game moving after he dribbled a loose ball in his box that was rolling to his keeper. The play was costly.
Callum Riley stole the ball in the box, and he somehow made a slaloming run past two Patriot defenders before unselfishly laying the ball off to Morse. The Florida Gulf Coast player didn’t take any chances, shooting the ball into the top of the net where the Patriot keeper or defenders couldn’t stop it.
While the attacking talents of Khiry Shelton and Kekuta Manneh were stumped trying to beat the El Paso defense, the hustle and brilliance of the two substitutes Paul Dalglish called upon probably made the play of the season.
An impressive first season for the Aztex continues on in the playoffs after the final regular season game against the New Orleans Jesters. A second place finish, which is more likely at the moment, means Austin would travel to Florida to play Ocala Stampede. (The Aztex could still host the first round match with a better bid to host than Ocala, and if the Florida club approved of the move.)
Although finishing first, other than the obvious reason, is what the city of Austin wants the most, it presents a little extra incentive because the game would likely match the Aztex up against Orlando City FC U23, the club that left Austin for Florida. I would have to believe a few Eberly’s Army members would be salivating over the chance to play against Orlando, even if it is the PDL team.
Moving into the playoffs the Aztex’s key player may be Chuy Sanchez. The attacking midfield was the best player on Sunday, and he never let the poor playing surface or physicality from the Patriots phase him. He should have scored in the game after his goal in the 19th minute was wrongfully called offsides. In the playoffs, his playmaking ability will be decisive to setting up his teammates.