USL PRO Feature
Sunday, September 2, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. – In the week leading up to his side’s USL PRO Playoffs Semifinal against Orlando City, Wilmington Hammerheads coach had preached to his side that in one game, anything can happen.
With an altered tactical plan, and formation, Irving’s side proved him right, earning a 4-3 victory at the Florida Citrus Bowl and a meeting with the Charleston Battery in next Saturday’s USL PRO Championship Game.
“We said before the game, belief is everything, and we believed in the system we were playing,” Irving said late on Friday night. “This was our third trip to Orlando, we’ve lost 4-1, we tied 1-1, we beat them in Wilmington, but we knew we had to come in with a different plan, we had to put some pressure on them. Everyone that comes to Orlando tends to sit back and tries to grind a result out, we couldn’t do that. We came here with a plan that we were going to go out and win the game, and that’s what we did.”
The early energy paid off soon after the opening kickoff, with Corey Hertzog seizing upon a misjudged header by an Orlando defender to claim possession before he was brought down in the penalty area by Lions goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo. The on loan New York Red Bulls striker calmly finished from the penalty spot to give his side an early lead. Christian Davidson then created the goal that doubled the Hammerheads’ advantage, a low cross from the left finding Luke Holmes, who hit a turning shot into the left corner of the net.
More than the early goals, though, the combination of Herztog and Holmes in attack trying to apply early pressure on the Lions when Wilmington lost possession, and the five-man midfield that left fewer gaps for Orlando to exploit, gave the game a different feeling to their last meeting, a 1-1 draw on July 12 that the Lions had dominated.
“We couldn’t defend for 90 minutes, we knew we had to score goals,” Irving said. “That was our objective, to put them under more pressure, to not let them rule the roost.”
After their slow start, the Lions came back into the game as the half wore on. Jamie Watson almost cut into the deficit, only to see his shot come back off the post. But on the half-hour mark, Wilmington made it three as Hagop Chirishian drove an excellent shot from 20 yards out into the left corner of the net. With his side pressing high up the field, Irving’s Hammerheads were able to force uncharacteristic errors from the Lions in their passing, which led to chances such as Chirishian’s.
“I think we took them by surprise in the way that we did play,” Irving said. “We put them under pressure at the back, Valentino and [Bernard] didn’t know what was coming, and we caused them a lot of problems rather than them causing us some problems. Yeah, over 90 minutes, they’re going to have some chances, but we had some good chances, and we finished them off.”
The Hammerheads did ride a little luck at times as well. After Matt Luzunaris’ goal a minute before the break got Orlando back into the game, the game could easily have swung Orlando’s way just over 10 minutes into the second half as Kevin Molino broke in on goal after a miscue by Wilmington’s defense. Molino’s shot beat Wilmington goalkeeper Troy Hernandez, but hit the base of the left post and rebounded straight back into the rookie’s arms.
Three minutes later, Hertzog put another nail in the Lions’ coffin, succeeding where Molino had failed in capitalizing on a defensive mistake to bag his second of the game. The former Reading United standout has been a catalyst for the Hammerheads since his arrival mid-season, and with goals in 11 goals in 19 games including the playoffs, has been a key in not only the side reaching the playoffs, but now advancing to the championship.
“He’s a good kid, and he scores goals, and he loves it here,” Irving said. “He’s a big part of our success, there’s no question about that, but when you bring players in they have to be the right players, you know, and it’s not just about his playing ability, his goal-scoring ability, it’s about his attitude and what he’s about, and he jells in with the rest of the players.”
Of course, knocking off the defending champion on their home turf, somewhere they had only lost once in two seasons prior to Friday night, was never going to be easy, and there were almost certainly some nerves as late goals by Watson from the penalty spot and George Davis IV on a deflected effort cut the Hammerheads’ lead in stoppage time. But Wilmington held on to take victory, keeping their remarkable run alive.
“We came in here with a plan, and we had to believe in ourselves, and we did that,” Irving said. “You’ve got to score goals to win the game, and that’s what we did, and I think we really deserved to win the game.”