The Columbus Eagles came into Sunday afternoon’s match against Steel City FC in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, experiencing an unfamiliar feeling. For the first time in franchise history, Columbus controlled its own destiny pending the outcome of the team’s final match of the Women’s Professional Soccer League season. The equation was simple, win and the Eagles secure second place in the WPSL Valley Division. A tie or loss could prove devastating and earn a third or fourth place finish. Tarnishing the feel of an already record-breaking season for the club.
Columbus began the match looking to put the game out of reach early. Midfielder Kelly DeNiro found Lisa Nouanesengsy in the fifth minute with a run down the left side of the pitch. The forward’s shot was deflected and saved by the Steel City goalkeeper.
Five minutes later, Nouanesengsy intercepted a back pass and quickly began the counter attack on the Steel City goal. The defender caught the Columbus forward, fouling her on the edge of the penalty box. With screams from the Columbus bench for a penalty, the official waved play on. The tackle was so severe that Nouanesengsy’s boot actually came off and she was out of the play for approximately thirty seconds, but no call.
The Eagles suffered some bad news in the 17th minute when defender Megan Minnix was went down with an apparent achilles injury. She did not return to action following examination from the training staff on site.
Columbus continued to exhibit dominance on Steel City as the match progressed. Stealing a page from the FC Barcelona playbook, the Eagles linked 10 successful passes in an attacking buildup. The 11th pass was just out of the reach of forward Rian Reid, who couldn’t beat the Steel City goalkeeper in a foot race to the ball.
Eagles goalkeeper Hannah Sargent saw her first action in the game in the 28th minute, stopping a quality opportunity from the right side of the penalty box and forcing the second shot just wide to keep the score level going into halftime.
During the break, captain Amber Kern told her squad to “play for each other.” That message took little time to seek in as Columbus opened up the scoring just two minutes later. Another beautiful passing sequence between Micaela Powers, DeNiro, and Dani Gunderson ended with Samantha Damante getting the goal, tapping home Gunderson’s cross from the right side. With Damante’s goal, she became the 10th different Eagles player to score in the 2018 season.
Columbus continued to play great team soccer throughout the second half and were rewarded with another goal in the 61st minute. Powers forced a turnover at midfield and quickly found DeNiro with the goalkeeper off her line. The midfielder hit her shot with finesse and comfortably buried it into the back of the net. The Eagles advantage was doubled with under 30 minutes to go.
Steel City brought the game to within one in the 65th minute, creating some nervous moments on the Columbus bench. A great counter attack caught the visitors out of position and left Jenna Villacres to fend for herself against the Steel City attack. The goalkeeper tried admirably to make a save but couldn’t keep the ball out of the net.
Looking to put the game out of reach, head coach Daniel Seiffert went to his bench for an injection of pace. He inserted Hanna Marks in search of a critical third goal. Marks almost converted the insurance goal in the 80th minute after receiving a great through ball from DeNiro. She took a took a shot from the left side of the 18-yard-box that was denied by the Steel City goalkeeper.
Hungry for a goal, Marks was back at it just three minutes later. The midfielder broke though the backline again with a tremendous run. The opposing defender fouled Marks from behind and was awarded a straight red card for the tackle. Playing a man up for the final seven minutes, Columbus slowed the pace of the game down and held firm to preserve a 2-1 victory over Steel City FC.
The 2018 season was one for the history books for the Columbus Eagles. Already earning records for wins (5) and points (17), the Eagles made some more history on Sunday afternoon. Columbus set records for goals scored (19), and fewest goals allowed (7) in a WPSL season. The Eagles’ plus-12 goal differential was also a record for a league season.
Columbus also earned its first victory during a regulation game away from Columbus in franchise history. The Eagles were unbeaten on the road with a record of (2-0-2).
“Play for each other”
Captain Amber Kern’s message was heard loud and clear on the Columbus bench and the Eagles came through. Columbus demonstrated great passing and patience to break down a stingy Steel City team. Lesser experienced teams could have become frustrated and not played to their potential. This wasn’t the case for Columbus, maturity and patience won the day.
Unfortunately the season concludes for the Eagles who finish in second place in the WPSL Valley Division. The Cleveland Ambassadors clinched the Valley Division title on June 23 with a victory over Motor City FC. Per WPSL league rules, the first place team in a division moves on to compete in the regional playoffs.
The Eagles should hold their heads high heading into this offseason. Columbus was the only WPSL club to take points away from the Ambassadors. Earning a 3-3 draw with the division champions on Memorial Day weekend.