It’s been a long season for Flower City Union, but a successful one. Starting in April and running 23 league matches, one forfeit, two US Open Cup games, and a NISA Independent Cup game, the season has culminated in their first-ever playoff birth. The team has come a long way from the disastrous record of 2022 that bled into the opening of the 2023 season, which started with 5 straight losses and their first goal not being scored until that fifth match. However, a strong middle of the season led to a 4-point cushion on the final playoff spot. It won’t be easy though, as they’ve met LA Force three times this year, losing all three matches. In a winner-takes-all all match, even against the third-place team, they should have entered the game knowing they could succeed.
It could not have been a better start for FCU. The ball was stolen from LA Force in the midfield and was passed through multiple players, ending up with Stephen Elias down near the right corner flag. His cross was sent past the keeper directly to Alioune Diakhate to put the ball into the net in the 2nd minute. Four minutes later, a mirror of the first goal happened with a Noah Cavanaugh cross in from the left side, with Diakhate again putting the cross into the goal.
A 2-0 lead did not mean that FCU just sat back to defend for 80-plus minutes. They kept up the pressure. Defending, Mumbi Kwesele and Josue Cartagena were throwing themselves into challenges and doing a great job of helping keep the attack going. However, it was only the 19th minute when LA Force had cut FCU’s lead in half. A pass was sent from the sideline to Francis Avoce in front of goal. He was able to keep possession, turn, and send it around two defenders and into the FCU goal. The goal sparked life into LA Force, and led to long periods of possession and dominance. After long strings of LA Force being the better team, the 34th minute saw FCU finally step up again, with a ball passed through most of their players, and ending up at Josue Cartagena for his first goal.
The 37th minute saw a huge error by FCU, as the ball was passed back to goalkeeper Michael Mejia, who didn’t take it cleanly, and brought down the LA Force attacker. He argued it was outside the box, but a penalty kick was awarded. While Mejia would have been solely at fault for the goal and was also the person with the chance to keep the two-goal lead, it was instead LA Force that made the wrong play, sending the ball skyrocketing over the crossbar. Flower City Union really had a chance to put the game to bed before the half, with a corner kick and a shot at the goal, but it trickled inches wide of the far post. The 42nd minute saw Diakhate coming close to securing his hat trick, as the ball was passed to him as he got behind the last defender, but he was judged to be offsides (watching the replay, I disagree, but it was close).
Kyle Nelson made his biggest play of the half right before stoppage time, as he was the last defender right in front of net and made a great play to not only take it off the attacker, but also to win a goal kick. It was going to be a huge halftime and incredibly important team talks. Flower City Union started the strongest they’d ever played, been the weaker team through the middle of the half, and then finished strong. They really needed to keep it up for 45 more minutes.
The second half had started strong for FCU, with back-and-forth play for both teams. The first five minutes saw Angelo Calfo stepping up in defense, with two great plays to stop LA’s attack in the opening of the half. However, the resulting corner kick off his second defensive clearance led to Avoce putting in his second of the night, after the ball had bounced around a bit and was unable to be cleared. LA Force really stepped up their play in the second half, the break had done them well. FCU was strong in their defending, but giving up a goal almost immediately after the break meant it was going to be a long second half trying to defend a one goal lead.
While the next 15 minutes were mostly controlled by LA Force, the nearest to a goal came by Diakhate in the 65th minute, when a nice pass back and forth led to him with a ball just outside the 6 yard box, but it was put wide instead of completing the hat trick. LA Force just kept attacking though, as the 71st minute saw another great attempt, with one defender back, but Mejia had the net covered and the shot was sent high and wide from a tight angle. Flower City Union had gone into time-killing mode. Every time the ball ended up at Mejia meant a few precious seconds standing over the ball waiting to be challenged before picking it up, then a few more before slowly taking his kick.
After a relentless stream of pressure by LA Force the entire second half, a bit of a let off for FCU came in the 85th minute as an LA Force attacker was shown his second yellow, for what looked like dissent. It wasn’t going to be an easy ending, as there was sure to be a lot of stoppage time, but playing a man up meant it would be slightly easier for FCU. To make things more stressful, right when stoppage time started (5 minutes, which was far too low but I’m not complaining), the video froze on the stream. Malik Stewart had just been subbed in, and there was still audio of the game, and he scored the goal that really sealed it in the 90+3rd minute.
Two goals in the first 6 minutes meant LA Force had too tough of a time. They were incredibly poor in the opening, and Flower City Union capitalized. Most of the game was even or LA the better team, but it was the opening minutes that had already decided the outcome. That’s not to take anything away from FCU: they defended the game spectacularly and took their chances and put them in when it was necessary. A 4-2 outcome would have been predicted by nobody, but it sure was a hell of a way to play their first ever playoff game,and proves they may have what it takes to beat league leaders Chattanooga FC.