Next week was meant to be the last of the season. Instead, it will be the most hotly contested and important set of fixtures all year. What would have been Decision Day became something else entirely when inclement weather pushed Week 2 matchups into late March. Now, four teams fighting for a berth in the Ideal Impact Champions Cup will enter into what is effectively a home-and-home playoff.
Raiders United will roll into their series with Atlético Central undefeated, looking to clinch a spot in the Final with a win next week. A loss would all but eliminate Central from contention. The other side of the would-be bracket features a clash between Stallions FC and Hurst City, two sides who have lived in the shadow of RUFC all year.
City and Stallions have not played yet this season, which gives the winner of their first matchup a decisive edge in the quest for the cup. Where Atlético must win out to lock down a spot in the championship (and potentially bump Raiders from the game), a draw followed by a win should be enough to push either HCFC or the Horsemen into the biggest match of the year. As for Real Euless and Spartans? They'll each get the chance to pick up their first win against the other.
The numbers suggest that Raiders will lock down the top of the table, but the next three teams in line could very well find themselves in a deadlock that pushes them to the league's third tie-breaker: team GPA. That's the future. All we know now is that Central made things very interesting with a win over Hurst City on Wednesday night.
Atlético Central Knock Off Hurst City
Clutch. It's the only word for Atlético moving forward. The Royal Blue find themselves in need of a perfect second half after some early stumbles, and the road ahead is bumpy at best. The first hurdle, however, was second-seeded Hurst City. They vaulted clear over it.
ACFC looked crisp and coordinated from the opening kick, their spacing and off-the-ball movement much improved after a tumultuous start to the season. The defense, however, continues to fight their instinct to boot the ball at the first sign of trouble. They start to crack under pressure, and City struck first by exposing a weak left back. The City striker worked his way down the flank, turned inside, and centered a clean pass to his man near the top of the box. Hurst's winger curled his shot low to the far post, freezing a Central ‘keeper who played flawlessly after that.
The man between the pipes kept Atlético in the game on several occasions, charging out to shut down any balls that slipped past his back line. As the game carried on, Atlético's potent attack started to click. They nabbed an equalizer around the fifteenth minute, ratcheting up the pressure and taking advantage of a through ball to beat City's goalie. Their striker tallied a brace and then some, notching a short strike, a curling assist to the back post just before the half, and a well-struck free kick to ice the game at 3-1.
Raiders Roll Over Real Euless
When the top of the table and the bottom of the table meet, things tend to get hairy. The first — and only — clash between Real Euless and Raiders United followed that script. Hurst suffocated their foes from start to finish, peppering the goal with tries that couldn't help but find their way through.
The good news for Real is that they seem to have found their man when it comes to minding the net. A double-digit sheet isn't anything to brag about, but Euless's goalkeeper handled himself well even as his defense crumbled around him. The majority of the tallies hang squarely on the back line, who continue to sag back and leave open space for their opponents to operate.
For their part, Raiders did their best to keep heads level and play clean. After burying a chance on a botched free kick that left the goal wide open, the boys in red concentrated on building their passing attack and honing their game plan. This was a tune-up game before the decisive series with Atlético, and they made the most of it. Unfortunately for Euless, that meant a barrage of shots that kept squirting through.
Stallions Back in Hunt After Topping Spartans
It took some time, but Euless finally broke through. They looked to have gone ahead early when their striker broke in behind the defense, but the Spartan goaltender was up to the task, parrying the shot and watching as the rebound fell for a volley that rattled the crossbar. The man between the pipes had quite a day, laughing his way through one miraculous deflection after another. Eventually, though, he lost his clean sheet to a penalty kick.
The Spartan defense remains suspect, often finding themselves chasing the ball instead of predicting it. This was no more evident than when they conceded the penalty. The Stallions striker made a break down the right side, pressuring a sagging portion of Central's defense. After beating his man, he broke free for a shot and was tackled from behind. The whistle came almost immediately.
The match ended 3-0, with Spartans being spared the full strength of the Euless attack because of technical difficulties. A mechanical issue with the team bus delayed both Euless teams' arrival. The late start and shortened match didn't stop either of them from finding the expected result, however, and the Horsemen will enter their series with Hurst City in full control of their own championship destiny.