After 8 grueling weeks of soccer, two teams remain in Liga HEB. The District Championship comes down to a single match between the top teams in the league. On one side of the bracket, Raiders United stand undefeated and seemingly invincible. On the other, Euless Junior High's Stallions FC look to complete a climb out of the cellar. Looking only at the league table, it's hard to pick against the team from Hurst. But a closer inspection suggests that this is a more even matchup than the standings suggest.
Raiders lead the aggregate series 10-2, besting the Horsemen 4-1 in Week Three and walloping them 6-1 in their meeting after the All-Star Break. But both games were closer than the scoreline, and Euless has found their form in recent weeks. Hurst may have completed an undefeated regular season, but their march to perfection will require that they snap a monthlong Stallion winning streak.
In their previous matchups, Raiders jumped out to an early lead and broke their opponent with superior possession play. The game didn't tilt until the final minutes, at which point the Stallion defense began to sag under pressure. The Red's midfield is the best in the league, and their strikers are devious; each claiming a handful of goals this season with a combination of stealth and precision. RUFC are masters of the through ball, and their only struggles this season have come against teams with diligent fullbacks and potent counter-attacks. Euless has both at their disposal.
Here's how the teams shake out:
|RUFC have a balanced attack, generating offense from nearly every position. Their forwards are talented, but they aren't game-breakers by themselves. They have the better team offense, but not the edge up top.
|Stallions FC boast a deceptively talented striker on one wing and the 2017 Golden Boot winner on the other. The question is not whether they'll be able to finish, but whether or not they'll get the chance. Still, on talent alone, they get the nod.
|There's no doubt that Raiders have the strongest midfield in the league. They dominate every game through patient possession and pinpoint passing, and they've yet to sweat this year because of the way their central players can control a match.
|Euless has speed on the outside wings, but the touch and tactics aren't there on the interior. Expect them to struggle in the center of the field and opt away from ball control toward a speedy counterattack. They need to win the ball quickly before danger develops.
|Again, this one is no contest. Raiders are so stacked at the back that they often shave a man off the wings to push the attack. Their Center Back was unanimously selected the 2017 MVP by a panel of coaches and league organizers, and not just because of his clutch tackles. Expect a goal or two from these guys.
|Stallions are no slouches defensively, but they're not a well-oiled machine yet, either. Some of these players are still adjusting to life on a contending team, and mental lapses have cost them goals in the past. If they can settle their nerves and keep mistakes to a minimum, though, they can do enough to win.
|Hurst has a strong goalkeeping pedigree, and their starting man has possibly the best work ethic in the league. He finished a close second in Golden Glove voting this year, making this category the toughest to pick. The edge goes to the man with more high-pressure experience.
|Stallions have given up more goals than their foes, but most of them hang around a defender's neck, not their goalkeepers'. Their current backup was their starter for most of the season until the 2017 Golden Glove winner stepped in and locked things down.
|Coach Girau is the top tactician in Liga HEB, and his squad proves it week in and week out. They've got a seemingly invincible system in place, and the personnel to run it. If any one thing decides this match, it will be formation and execution. That's a decisive advantage.
|In just two seasons, Gary Dobbs has taken a group that perennially trailed behind Hurst and Central and turned them into contenders. He doesn't have the soccer experience of his opponent, but he's likely the best motivator in the league. His boys will need it.
|In a weird way, Raiders United will be defending a title this season. Hurst City won the Champions Cup last year in an upset, and RUFC will be looking to bring the cup back home. That's motivation enough, but there's always the danger that the Reds get over-confident and stumble at the finish line.
|Stallions are the archetypal Team-with Nothing–to-Lose. Given that they finished without a point last year, even a runners-up campaign would be phenomenal for them. But they've got a legitimate chance to upset Raiders and a coach who can make them believe that it's their destiny. That's a scary combination.
Overall, this shapes up to be a memorable match. The danger here is that an early lead for Raiders could very quickly turn into a route. If Stallions keep it close through the first half and stay within striking distance into the final ten minutes, though, they could steal the title and dash Hurst's dream of perfection. No matter how it ends, it's going to be a night you won't want to miss!