Utica City FC entered Sunday’s road contest with the Harrisburg Heat missing their injured top three scorers, Slavisa Ubiparipovic, Bo Jelovac, and Joey Tavernese, but were able to grind out a 7-5 win to keep pace with the Baltimore Blast for the Eastern Division title.
Sunday’s win, coupled with Friday’s 6-1 road win over the Mississauga MetroStars, improved City to 15-6 and kept them in a first place tie with the Blast.
“It’s a gritty effort,” said Utica head coach Ryan Hall. “These guys both Friday night and Sunday gave everything they had. They’re very deserving of these wins but I couldn’t be prouder of their effort. We’re missing some key guys, but everybody from top to bottom stepped up.”
“We knew it was going to be a tough weekend for us with the injuries,” said Utica forward Freddy Moojen, “but like Ryan says we have enough depth to overcome missing a few players. We knew we had to stick together and defend. I think everybody gave 100% and that helped us overcome missing key players.”
Utica got an early break when Liam Callahan couldn’t control Jake Schindler’s shot, but Heat goalkeeper William Banahene inadvertently poked the wild rebound into his own net to give City a 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later Moojen fed the ball into the middle where Mauricio Salles tapped it in for a 2-0 lead.
Matt Braem got Harrisburg on the board at 1:53 of the second quarter with his breakaway goal that was triggered by a Daniel Villela pass, but less than a minute later Salles tucked a long, soft shot from near the yellow line into the near post past a screened Banahene to make it a two-goal lead again.
Ricardo Carvalho scored with less than one second remaining in the quarter to give Harrisburg momentum heading into the second half.
Only 16 seconds into the third quarter Carvalho struck again. Utica goalie Andrew Coughlin’s pass up the middle was intercepted by a charging Carvalho who calmly returned the ball to Coughlin via the back of the net to tie the game.
Five minutes later the Heat took their only lead of the game when Tavoy Morgan’s redirect sneaked over the goal line through a pile of bodies.
“We didn’t want to chase and then we saw that we weren’t getting much production up top so we made the switch to put (Darren) Toby up top, and put Salles back. Toby’s great at moving the ball and Salles is even better at moving forward than having his back to the goal so we seemed to have a more fluid second half,” said Hall.
The Heat lead lasted only 92 seconds. Callahan’s tap-in in front of the goal was set up by Moojen and 70 seconds later on the power play Lucio Gonzaga’s shot hit the post, bounced off Nelson Santana and fell to Toby who crashed the goal to give Utica the lead for good.
Neither team would score again for the next 21 minutes, but five seconds into the fourth quarter Ben Ramin had a key block and Coughlin had clutch saves on a Morgan header attempt and later on a spinning Carvalho in the box.
While Utica was playing their second road game in three nights, the Heat were playing their second home game in less than 24 hours. Saturday night Harrisburg won a wild 15-10 game against the Orlando SeaWolves, in which the Heat blew a four goal lead before scoring the game’s last five goals.
“Orlando wants to trade chances and we executed on our chances,” said Heat head coach Pat Healey. “We had two bad three minute spurts where they scored a lot of goals just because we weren’t focused. We were way up and then they came back, but we responded well.
“Utica is very defensively sound and possession-style so if you give the ball away they’re going to keep the ball for a minute or two,” Healey continued. “Orlando’s not going to do that so two different styles. We adjusted to both of them and we got one win, but didn’t get the other. We’re an up and coming team, but we want to be 2-0.”
There has been a lot of focus this year on teams faltering in the second game of a back-to-back, but it’s something players have always had to deal with.
“It’s very hard to play back-to-back especially because of the traveling,” said Moojen. “You have to travel in minivans for four, five, six hours and we don’t sleep well and we don’t eat well because we leave the game late. It’s not ideal, but that’s how it’s been since I’ve been in this league since 2007 and we have to overcome those little things.”
That’s where an experienced team can have an advantage. “Sometimes we try to do too much and then we realize, ‘No, no, no I cannot do that today, I have to save my energy to defend,'” said Moojen. “When you play back-to-back keep the ball, make sure you’re always defending, when we win the ball, change and try to stay fresh on the field.”
The Heat are out of the playoff chase, but sit at 8-13 after a 1-7 start. Utica and Baltimore are fighting for the prestige of winning a division title, but no matter who finishes first, the playoff dates are already set in stone.
Because of arena availability Utica had a choice of hosting on Friday April 19 or Monday April 22. Baltimore’s home date will be Saturday April 20 and Utica will host Game 2 and the possible minigame on April 22. Both coaches seem happy with the dates. Opening at home as the Blast did in all three rounds in 2016-17 forces the other team to travel twice, but hosting Game 2 gives you the home field advantage in the “Game 3” minigame. Both teams will use their last three regular season games to get healthy, but their final head-to-head meeting in the season series on March 31 promises to be a high intensity playoff appetizer.