Stockade FC made its playoff debut Saturday, and it was a thriller which came with a side order of vengeance. Kingston outlasted Hartford City FC 2-1 in the National Premier Soccer League’s Atlantic White conference final in double-overtime on Saturday before a record-breaking crowd of 1,393 at Dietz Stadium.
In the first game of the 2017 season, first-year club Hartford came to Kingston in the rain, winning 3-1. In that game, the visitors struck early, going up 2-0 in the first 10 minutes of action. On Saturday night, Hartford’s Sebastian Stezewski hit the back of the net in the sixth minute, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead and the home faithful terrible flashbacks.
“It was disappointing because it was reminiscent of the first time we played Hartford when we gave up two in the first few minutes,” said Kingston head coach David Lindholm. “There was nothing tactical about that goal. We misplayed a ball and it got through our backs and they’re up 1-0. We didn’t need to change anything or reinvent the wheel. It was clear that the guys thought, ‘We’ve made our jobs a little tougher, but we can get to work.’”
Forward Michael Creswick, who came on as a reserve in the second half after missing the team’s final three regular-season matches, put it succinctly. “Our unofficial motto is, ‘You hit us once, we’ll hit you back twice,’” he said. “If we’re scored upon that doesn’t write us off in a game.”
While the visiting supporters in the metal bleachers across the pitch from the home stands were celebrating, Stockade FC got to work. In soccer, momentum shifts show as flurry of activity, and for Kingston that at first yielded several runs at the Hartford goal. Then it yielded an equalizer when Bruce Jeter split a defender and the goalkeeper with a beautiful header off a precisely arced pass from Ross Macklin. The score was 1-1, and it would remain that way throughout regulation.
“Bruce scored a great goal,” said Lindholm. “It was a phenomenal ball from Ross Macklin, and that got us right back in the match. It was almost like the game started over 15 minutes in.”
The critical moment
Those who don’t understand “the beautiful game” often level the criticism that there’s not much happening on the field, but fans would counter that something is happening all the time. Put another way, because the clock doesn’t stop, neither does the action. Little moments in soccer lead to big things, but near the beginning of the first overtime on Saturday is when a few things happened in sequence that changed the entire game.
It began on a breakaway Hartford run down the right sideline, with the player on the wing targeting a teammate with a cross. Had the pass connected, it’s likely Hartford would have taken the lead. Instead, seemingly from out of nowhere, Kingston captain and defenseman Jamal Lis-Simmons, deflected the ball on the slide, where it was scooped up by Kingston goalkeeper Steve Skonieczny.
Lis-Simmons didn’t just prevent Hartford from scoring on the play, he also signaled to his teammates that no matter how wiped out they might be, they had to fight through it.
“If Jamal is making it to the end of the game in his mid-30’s, I think everyone else on the team has to look at themselves and make it through the game with no excuses,” said Creswick. “And he was awesome, an immense defenseman, blocking everything all the way through the end of the game. He’s an inspiration. That’s why he’s the captain.”
That moment led to another. On the ensuing Stockade possession, the ball bounced around and found its way to Creswick, who in a single fluid motion turned to face the goal and fired off a soaring shot that found the upper left corner of the net. It’s a move Creswick, a crafty scorer, has tried before with varying degrees of success, but never more perfectly.
“He’s a player that can strike at any moment,” said Lindholm. “He had his back to goal from 25 feet out, and we all knew he was about to shoot, but his body position never allows anybody else to know. It’s hard to anticipate that as a defender. You feel like you have him contained and then he just cracks a shot out of nowhere. He’s a tricky player and he had gas in the tank to be able to do that for us in overtime.”
Creswick said his chance came because of another that didn’t.
“I was in position to push in behind and receive a through ball, but it didn’t quite happen,” he said. “I kind of turned a little bit in frustration, and that gave me a few yards from the defender who backed off. It luckily went inside the post. I really thought it was going into the parking lot, but it swerved back at the right time.”
Creswick led Kingston in goals scored in 2016, but the roster is so stacked this season that he hasn’t had to shoulder so much of the scoring load and has been able to contribute in other ways.
“This season I’ve not scored as many goals, but I’ve been involved in a lot of assists and won a lot of free kicks and things,” he said. “I wanted to create something important in the game. I was happy to score in front of the fans at Dietz, because I hadn’t scored at home. It was elation.”
Elation was one of many emotions felt by the Dutch Guard and other Stockade supporters over the course of a tense game which went down to the wire. Club Chairman Dennis Crowley, the physical manifestation of that emotional roller coaster, spent the entirety of the game nervously pacing.
“I couldn’t watch the game, I couldn’t not watch the game,” Crowley said. “I should look at my Apple Watch to see how many steps I took. I probably walked 10 miles on that track. I got a little misty-eyed. I went for a walk on the field for a little bit. It’s just an indescribable feeling. To see that happen for that group of guys in front of those fans. I feel like I’ve done a lot of stuff with work and startups and things, and there’s something about the chemistry of that moment. It’s just awesome. I’m really at a loss for words.”
The next challenge
With their first-ever playoff win, Stockade moves on to the regional semifinals against the Clarkstown SC Eagles, who they’ll face at Drew University’s Ranger Stadium in Madison, N.J. on Saturday, July 22 at 7 p.m.
Clarkstown SC are something of a mystery, as they play in the Keystone Conference, made up of teams from New Jersey, western and southern New York and Pennsylvania. Their conference’s second seed, the Eagles toppled New Jersey Copa FC 3-1 in the conference finals on Saturday, July 15. In 10 regular season matches, Clarkstown outscored their opponents 40-9, though 19 of those goals came in a pair of games against Greater Binghamton FC Thunder and Hershey FC, the bottom two sides in the conference.
In the other regional semifinal game, the Elm City Express hosts Legacy 76 of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, with teams located in Virginia and Maryland. In a short six-game regular season, Legacy 76 went 0-3-3, but because of NPSL rules, the top four teams in a conference — even conferences with only four teams total — make the playoffs. And once they hit the postseason, Legacy 76 suddenly figured out how to win, beating both Virginia City Beach FC and FC Frederick by 3-1 results. If their charmed run through the playoffs somehow gets them past the Elm City juggernaut, and if Stockade comes away from Ranger Stadium on Saturday with a win, that would likely mean a regional final at Dietz Stadium on Saturday, July 29.
But as the old sports maxim goes, let’s take it one game at a time. And that one game happens this Saturday around 90 minutes south of Kingston. The hope among team officials and players is that the close proximity will mean a loud contingent of Stockade supporters will be on hand.
“It looks like that will be as close an away game as we’ve had all season,” said Lindholm. “Our fans have traveled well throughout this season, which is a remarkable thing in any league in any division to have fans on the road with you. Being that close to New York City and all our connections there, that’ll help us. And it’s not far from Kingston. The more people that are able to travel the better. We love having them and appreciate the support that we get on the road.”