By Jordan Spratt
Shreveport, LA – While winning and losing are paramount at any level of professional sports, execution of the system put in place by the coaches is how you get to the place of expecting to win. As of late, the Rafters have made a habit of being confident in the system and building continuity. With the playoffs only a handful of games away, the men would travel to Fort Worth to play the Vaqueros for their second matchup of the season.
With a long season, injuries and roster changes are bound to happen and the Rafters have not been immune to either. This year’s team depth has been more than substantial and with Coach Palmer’s team now down to roughly 18 players, that depth has proven to be necessary.
“Training sessions have been good, we’ve had good banter with the boys and we’ve had to put the fun in it for the lads. You can see we’ve got such a small squad right now- we’re down to 18 and you can see they all want to fight for each other.”
The Rafters came out in a variation of the 4-1-4-1 which could be looked at as a 4-1-3-1-1 in terms of how they attacked and got back on defense. Cid Fernandez manned the number 10 attacking role in between CM Johnson and FW, Lucas Pereira. Dropping in as the lone defensive-mid was Unger, who has seen time at the center-half position as well this season. Unger moved as his 4 backs instructed, going from sideline to sideline as the first line of defense for cutting off passing lanes. Out on the wings were Bush and Breaux who gave adequate amount of space for fullbacks, Pollifrone and Ariza, to make tackles around midfield.
Pollifrone and Ariza, while not the fastest fullbacks, were exceptional at spotting trouble well before it got to the defensive third. On numerous occasions would both have success at intercepting a pass meant for a cross field switch and immediately turn into a counter attack. French and M. Hammond both occupied themselves with bracketing the Vaqueros forward, as the ball was directed toward him. While the defense and its movement were solid, goal keeper Lance Quini, would be far from incident. In the 23rd minute, the Vaqueros would have a series of passes through the middle, as their forward would get free with the ball. As he took his shot, Quini was there in an instant blocking the shot and sending it away to safety.
Only five minutes later would the number 1 be called on again. After a decent touch from a switch to the left-hand side, the Vaqueros winger gave himself enough space to take a shot only about 8 yards away from Quini. Protecting his near post, Quini would position his body perfectly to block the point-blank attempt.
The Rafters first real shot at goal would come in the 34th minute as a fortunate ricochet would land in front of Pereira, just inside the 18-yard box. Already scoring once against the Vaqueros in the first game, Pereira’s left to right curling ball would just miss the top right corner. Fernandez and Pereira would both link up to create 5 combined shots on goal giving the Rafters the counter attack potency needed- forcing the defense of Fort Worth to keep tabs on them instead of aiding the attack.
With near misses by both teams and exquisite saves by Quini, the Rafters would end the half looking dangerous but composed. The half would end 0-0.
The second half result showed what the game plan of the Rafters was from the beginning: Wear the home side out enough to where counter attacks with a quarter of the game left to play stung more. The effects of the all-out attack mode of the Vaqueros began to show as substitutes were needed early for the attacking players who had done so much to attack and defend. The amount of times the Rafters were forced to last-second-defend was greatly reduced, as they snuffed out attacks in unison.
As the Vaqueros went all-in with the added pressure of getting a home 3 points, it left the attacking players of the Rafters plenty of space to receive balls from defense to midfield and double the amount of shots taken from the first half. With the point in reach, Coach Palmer made tactical substitutions to ensure the Rafters had something to show for the effort given for 90 minutes. Due to the amount of injuries, mainly on the side of the home team, the game would see the most added time of all season with 5 minutes extra. The Rafters did well to commit just enough to attack while mainly focusing on the shape as Coach Palmer and his staff implored them to do so. The Rafters would get a much-deserved tie as they rendered the attack of the Vaqueros nearly useless.
The 0-0 score with the Vaqueros edging the Rafters out in shots and possession tells the story of how the Rafters were able to come away with a clean sheet and a point. The Rafters’ mindset was patient throughout, making sure positioning was correct and constantly letting one another know where runs were being made. While the team has had some attractive games, this was by far the most tactically focused the team has played.
“I think tonight’s game plan was something we’ve tried to execute away from home. We put together a plan where we don’t concede away from home. The league sees fit to give us a point when we start the game. Can we hold on to that point? Can we be defensively solid away from home? Last year we didn’t win enough games away from home and this year we certainly haven’t. So that performance against a strong Fort Worth team was absolutely fantastic. The game plan was executed to a T. I just said to the players I’m proud of ‘em. That’s the first time we put a game plan in from the scouting report and it’s worked for us. The idea was to get a point tonight then Tyler and Houston come to us and we need to win those games…,”
“Gaining a point tonight stops Fort Worth from getting 3 and I think the top 3 are already set but I believe 3 and 4 four could be had with a little run here toward the end of the season. We haven’t given up hope on the third spot. I think if we win our home games and we take at least a point against Dutch Lions, always difficult to go there and win, but we play them there and then they come to us. So hopefully we can win our home games and if we can win those we give ourselves a great chance,” said Coach Palmer.
With the four games left and a maximum 12 points up for grabs, the Rafters have a renewed sense of purpose knowing they can make the playoffs for second year in as many seasons. The Rafters now sit four points behind the Houston Regals for a playoff spot and control their own destiny as the Regals travel to us this week June 24th 7:00pm at Graf Orthodontics field.
By Jordan Spratt