Le Rouge coach discusses team's upcoming encounter with Great Lakes Conference leaders AFC Ann Arbor at Keyworth Stadium. Larry O'Connor
What was a gulf is now a puddle.
After Friday night’s clash between AFC Ann Arbor and Detroit City FC, all will be left is settling dust and someone holding onto first place in the National Premier Soccer League Great Lakes Conference.
Ann Arbor (9-1-1, 28 points) visits Detroit (8-1-2, 26 points) holding a two-point edge and a potential first-round bye in the playoffs, which start July 22.
“On paper, obviously, there are still games to be played after this Friday,” AFC Ann Arbor coach Eric Rudland said. “I think this is the league championship. That’s how we’re preparing for it.
“You have the first-place and the second-place team squaring off. You have two matches left after this, but we know this match is going to determine who has the opportunity to finish first.”
Detroit City FC coach Ben Pirmann is taking a longer-term view.
After Friday’s showdown, Detroit travels to East Lansing for a match against third-place Lansing United (6-4-0, 18 points) on Sunday. The return leg against Lansing is July 14 in the regular-season finale at Keyworth Stadium.
“Obviously, right now, for the time being, with two weekends left, the winner will be in first place,” Pirmann said. “If we tie, Ann Arbor stays up there, but you’ve got first place on the line. You’ve got second place on the line or you’ve got not making the playoffs (on the line).
“Ann Arbor is in a really good spot for making the playoffs. They can kind of sit back and see how things go. We have to be kind of the aggressor. Win, loss or draw, we have to do the same thing on Sunday afternoon in Lansing. So, we’ve just got to make sure we’re not worried about what’s at stake, but just worry about the 90-minute game and put our best foot forward.”
When the two sides met May 21, Le Rouge was winless with three consecutive draws under their belt. The Mighty Oak came away 2-0 winners on a pair of goals by Cuban international Dario Suarez.
A lot has changed since then.
DCFC got a rub of the green, eking out its first win in a friendly against Glentoran FC and then winning eight straight in NPSL play to climb the ladder.
Meanwhile, AFC Ann Arbor lost talisman Suarez (five goals in five games) to a six-month ban after he kicked a ball at a referee in disgust following a match against Lansing United.
The Mighty Oak haven’t wilted without their marksman, seeing nine different players score 18 goals during their last six matches.
Kaleb Jackson netted the lone goal in the team’s 1-0 home victory last Saturday over Lansing United, which restored their first-place standing and offered a measure of revenge for a 2-0 drubbing in East Lansing.
“It’s been a catch-22 obviously,” Rudland said. “Dario is very talented. So to lose him out of the lineup was on paper a setback for us. He had been a focal point of our attack for the first five games of the season.
“But since losing him, it’s been kind of a neat cultural shift in the team where we’ve had a number guys step up and become a threat in our attack.”
Detroit’s scoring also appeared to be one-stop shopping with forward Shawn Lawson (Oakland) scoring five goals, four in four straight matches. Since then Roddy Green, Elijah Rice and Tyrone Modi have hit the back of net.
The teams enter Keyworth Stadium separated by only a few spots in the 96-team NPSL power rankings: Ann Arbor is second at 2.55 points per game; Detroit is seventh at 2.36 ppg.
DCFC’s splendid league run has come in the face of mounting injuries.
The club lost French midfielder Louis Dargent (twisted knee), defender Spencer Glass (ankle sprain) and forward Max Todd (ankle sprain) to assorted ailments. Additionally, starting goalkeeper Colin Miller returned to Providence College this month and midfielder Aaron Franco joined the U.S. team at the Maccabi Games in Israel.
On the plus side, forwards Jordan Tyler (broken foot) and Mauricio Castorino, midfielder George Chomakov (groin) and defender Zach Schewee (knee) are returning from injury.
To fill a void in goal, the club picked up Fernando Pina who played at Coastal Carolina and Akron. He ran up a shutout streak of 179 minutes before yielding a goal in the team’s 3-1 victory over the Michigan Stars last week.
“We knew from the beginning that Colin (Miller) was going to have to leave July 1st, so if we were going to be in the playoff hunt, we wanted to bring in another goalkeeper as cover,” Pirmann said. “Fernando has done well.”
Ann Arbor’s TJ Tomasso, who played two seasons with Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, has conceded a paltry seven goals in 11 matches.
“He’s a veteran guy,” said Rudland of the SMU product. “He’s earned the respect of the players around him.”
AFC Ann Arbor vs. Detroit City FC
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck
Records: AFC Ann Arbor (9-1-1, 28 points); Detroit City FC (8-2-1, 26 points)
At stake: First place in the NPSL Great Lakes Conference