Monday, August the 27th brought the first day of school along with the derby between Manteo and First Flight men’s soccer programs. The previous encounter, the week prior, got underway only to be interrupted and postponed due to a severe thunderstorm. Manteo came into the game with confidence in their ability to play with their perennial powerhouse rival as they had previously defeated two solid teams in Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School and Currituck. First Flight, on the other hand, was in unfamiliar territory prior to kick off as they were anxious to get above 500. They lost their first complete match of the season to a highly talented Cape Henry squad and then defeated a solid Norfolk Collegiate team. The stage was set for an exciting encounter and when it was all said and done, the game certainly had its moments of elation.
The game kicked off with First Flight controlling possession early and often as Manteo looked to find an early balance between parking the bus and providing pressure along the Nighthawk backline. First Flight continued in their 3-5-2 formation as Manteo switched into a 4-4-2 to combat the Nighthawks ability to switch the point of attack while also forcing their wingbacks to hold true on the additional forward occupying the width.
The first eight minutes of the half, things were going according to plan for Manteo as they continued to bend but not break, allowing no lethal scoring opportunities for the Nighthawks while finding some possession going forward. The game changed before the first half ten-minute mark as a low diagonal ball was played through Manteo’s backline to the top right corner of the 18-yard box. Manteo keeper, Trent Jones Jr., read the ball and came off his line to collect it. Jones Jr. slid feet first as he scooped up the ball before the attacker could get there. Suddenly, the ball dropped right out of his hands as he was popping up. It fell right to the Nighthawk attacker and he accepted the gift by one touching it into the back of an empty net. An early mistake left Manteo down 1-0.
Manteo did not point fingers or hand their heads. Instead, they got back in their formation and kept at it, finding longer and more consistent runs of possession through more combination play through the midfield.
The Nighthawks found the back of the net again ten minutes later off a set piece outside of the corner of the 18-yard box. The Manteo backline deemed the spot to be in a shooting location and placed four players in the wall. First Flight overloaded the backside of the box and sent a well-placed ball bending towards the back post. Two Manteo defenders found themselves marking three runners, and a Nighthawk attacker was able to get his head on the ball, flicking it into the side-netting.
The Nighthawks would not let up and the first half would not end before Manteo gave up the third goal to the home side. A Nighthawk midfielder squeezed a beautiful through ball between two Redskin defenders. The striker was able to take one touch to goal, look up picking his spot as the keeper held the line, and bury it in the far post side netting. Down 3-0 with ten minutes to play in the first half, things were not looking good for Manteo. The Redskins did finish the half out strong with a few attacking opportunities and a handful of nice saves from Jones Jr.
At halftime, Manteo discussed their tactics, making minor adjustments. The major adjustments were centered around their mental make-up. Manteo felt they gave First Flight two of their three goals. They were told to mentally convince themselves the game was actually a 1-0 scoreline and that they needed just one goal in the first ten minutes of the second half to get back in the game. A players mental makeup can often be the difference between winning or losing, persevering or quitting. Manteo proved what they were made of in the second half.
As the second half got underway, Manteo looked to gain more possession by winning more 50/50 balls in the midfield and playing more simply with short passes on the ground. The Redskins got their swagger back just five minutes in. It began with the Manteo backline winning the ball in the back, playing it out wide for outside midfielder, Ryan McOwen. McOwen used his size and speed to bully his way down the field but was dispossessed after a solid forty yard run. The Nighthawk defender poked it away to the middle of the midfield. The ball was then won by Manteo midfielder, Landon Taylor. Taylor quickly found Eric Hernandez nearby as he was pressed quickly. Upon his pass to Hernandez, Taylor spun off his defender towards the goal to open back up. Hernandez played him back as a home-side defender came hard for the ball as well. Taylor bodied the defender while making a quick turn towards goal, finding two other defenders closing quick just outside the 18-yard box. Taylor took one touch to goal. He fancied a strike on goal. It was a well-struck with the laces and rocketed past a stunned goalie and into the back of the net. The goal was pure class and just what Manteo needed to climb back into the game.
The run of play began to intensify. The pace of play was heightened and the physicality increased as First Flight seemed uncomfortable on the pitch for the first time. A professional foul by the Nighthawk right-back gave Manteo a free-kick outside of the right corner of the box. Noah Goetsch stood over the ball, eyeing his options. Goetsch played a beautiful ball to the top of the box to the striker, Joe Zafra. Zafra used his head to flick the ball up and back towards the goal. Hernandez had positioned himself on the backside and was making a well-timed, late run to the far post. The flick-on by Zafra fell right into the path of Hernandez as he headed it into the far-post side netting. An ecstatic Manteo side celebrated and First Flight seemed in disbelief that the score was now 3-2.
The Nighthawks picked up their pressure on the ball and their intensity going forward. On both sides, every ball was pressed hard and every dribble possession was met with a hard shoulder challenge. The passion of both teams was spilling out from the players, coaches, and fans. Everyone knew there would inevitably be at least one more goal within the game, and the team that scored it would be in control.
First Flight answered back ten minutes after Manteo’s run of consecutive goals with a beautiful finish by a Nighthawk striker in the side netting that was set up by another well-weighted through ball. It was certainly a moment that deflated the Manteo momentum and seemed to calm the First Flight side. The intensity of the game would not relinquish until the final seconds. However, Manteo had finally realized that the Nighthawks were not an impenetrable force.
While the Redskins did not hold the majority of possession, they certainly held more of the ball in the second half than in the previous half. The Manteo midfield of Goetsch, Taylor, Hernandez, and Calvio began to understand their roles better in the new formation and provided better combination play through the midfield and into the final third. The build-up was better but the finality of it all was always missing something in the end, whether it be a final touch, the shot, or an offside.
The game ended in a 4-2 win for First Flight. The Manteo side had numerous positives to take away from the game and a handful of mistakes to learn from. Both sides played with a lot of heart and both look to do well this season and in their respective playoffs.
Captain Erik Hernandez said “It was a well-fought game and our boys played hard. Our confidence grew after scoring those two goals on them.”
Coach Cleaver stated after the game, “I am really proud of our boys for never giving up after starting off down 3-0. They showed a lot of heart to fight back and make it a game. It was unfortunate to give them two easy goals in the first half but overall, I think we showed everyone we can hang with them. The game was a great tactical test for us as we had to change the way we play a good bit in order to slow down their lethal attack. I think we should have a lot of confidence going forward with any other team we face this year.”