USL PDL: Austin Lose Out in Southern Conference Final to Rivals Orlando
It's been a tremendous season following the PDL with thrills and spills, ups and downs but this weekend the Southern Conference finals took place in Ocala, Florida with Mid-South winners Laredo Heat were joined by Austin Aztex as they travelled to the sunshine state to face Orlando U23s and Ocala in the semi-finals to decide who would be regional champions.
Laredo Heat, as Mid-South champions took to the field first on Friday with the match up against Orlando U23s and took the field as favourites to take the victory over their Eastern divisional rivals but things didn't quite got to plan, although they started off well in the early part of the match.
Orlando took the lead just after the half hour mark with a Russo goal and their efforts for victory were helped when Laredo suffered the loss of captain Juan de dios Ibarra just before the break when he received a red card to leave his team with only 10 players for the remainder of the game.
It was a blow at the heart of the Laredo team and although they were the one goal down, the pressure was going to be on them to try and fight back into a match against a strong physical Orlando side that had the wind in their sails. 1-0 up against 10 players, the favourite’s mantle had suddenly swung from Laredo to Orlando.
The second period didn't get any better for the Texan side as they lost another goal only four minutes into the half but quickly struck back another four minutes late through a penalty kick that was struck home by Hector Vallejo to give the Laredo side a chance at grabbing something from the game.
It was a valiant effort for the team for the remainder of the game but they just simply couldn't grab another goal to equalize the match and the first Southern Conference semi-final of the day went the way of Orlando at the expense of Mid-South title winners Laredo Heat.
Semi-final game two of the day was soon underway as Austin Aztex, who finished second in the mid-south division took on Southeast winners Ocala Stampede and all the early pressure came from the Texas side as they went for the throat early in search of the opening goal.
After an offside goal was called on Tyrpak and a Manneh shot against the crossbar, Austin took the lead on 17 minutes from Khiry Shelton to make it 1-0 but the manner that the shots were being placed upon the Ocala goal area was pleasing as it looked like there were plenty of goals in the Austin side as they continued to take the game to their hosts.
Ocala for their part were fighting for their lives under a barrage of strikes on goal but Dos Santos and Janneh both had efforts that went close for the home side but it was the Aztex that were to add another when Manneh buried a penalty shortly after a brawl had paused the game momentarily as both sets of players argued the penalty decision.
With the score at 2-0 for the Aztex, the game looked on easy street for the visiting side but just prior to the half time whistle, Ocala struck back with a penalty of their own that took the game into the break at 2-1 for Austin but the momentum had swung back in Ocala's favour despite them being a goal down at this point.
Ocala took this momentum into the second period and it wasn't long before they added another goal when De Oliviera added his sides second from a free kick on 53 minutes.
It was a body blow to the Texas side after leading 2-0 at one point of the game but their resilience was to tell through the remaining 37 minutes as they continued to battle for the win that would take a Texas side into the Southern Conference final.
Manneh added another goal with 20 minutes remaining after jinking his way past a couple of defenders to make the score 3-1 for Austin as they continued to search for openings to end the game and close out Ocala from getting anything from the remaining time of play.
Ocala had another great chance before the end but Austin's defensive back line managed to clear the ball from the line and minutes later, the final whistle blew and the second final spot of the day went to Austin Aztex who would have a free day on Saturday before the big match on Sunday.
So the culmination of 16 league games and a semi-final match had come to this day, the Southern Conference champions would be decided in this 90 minutes of soccer.
The rivalry between the two has been well documented as Orlando's owners had taken the old Austin PDL franchise ownership and replaced it in Florida leaving the city of Austin without a soccer team at this level. But like a phoenix, the club has risen from the ashes, one that in its first year had managed to reach the conference final and hopefully the winner’s medal.
Like their previous semi-final match, Austin got off to a quick start and took a 12th minute lead, again with a Manneh penalty but the celebrations were short lived as Orland struck back less than 60 seconds later to equalize through a well struck Helm shot to make it 1-1 after only 13 minutes.
Orlando were to take the lead with moments remaining of the first half when a well worked short corner was met by Reynolds in the six yard area, who fired home to give his side a 2-1 lead despite being behind early in the game.
We were at the half way point of the game and three goals had been scored and three yellow cards had also been dished out by the referee which showed the commitment that the players were showing as both sides battled for every ball in the most important game of their season.
It was a battle royale as the second half wore on, with chances at either half to add to the tally no quarter was given in search of either an equalizer for Austin or a two goal cushion for Orlando.
It was Orlando though who were to add the next goal with 10 minutes remaining on the clock and it now seemed too much of a mountain to climb for Austin to clamber back into the reckoning. But clamber they did!
With the clock showing 90+2, Austin, through Shelton, grabbed a lifeline with a second goal to make it 3-2 and as they rushed back into their own half in order to hurry the retake of kick off, they clock showed that less than three minutes was left for them to score again and take the game to extra time.
It was inevitable that another goal would be scored as Austin pushed everyone forward, but as they did so, they left themselves vulnerable at the back and Orland took advantage of these gaps and scored a fourth goal that ultimately ended the game at 4-2.
It was a tremendous effort by both sides, but it was Orlando U23s who ran out winners and are Southern Conference Champions 2012.
Commiserations to not only Austin for such a bold effort in the final, but also to Laredo Heat and Ocala Stampede who fell at the semi-final hurdle.
It's been quite a season for our Texas sides what with the mid-south lead changing hands on more than one occasion as the league progressed. But ultimately in the end, soccer was the winner and both teams can take solace in the fact that they are widely supported throughout the state and have achieved great things in the 2012 season. Roll on season 2013.
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