From a coaching perspective the Ambush and Tropics staffs, while finding themselves in different positions in the standings, face a similar predicament. How do we keep our teams focused and positive in their approach?
The Ambush find themselves still in the thick of the playoff race but with diminishing room for error. The team followed their huge win over the Comets two weeks ago with a heart breaking loss Friday night in overtime to the SeaWolves. The loss dropped the Ambush from second place down to fourth, showing how tight the race is in the South Central Division. While a loss to the Tropics would not eliminate the Ambush it most certainly would put them behind the 8 ball.
For Florida at this point it’s about competing, taking a professional approach, and embracing the role of spoiler. Florida would have entered the season expecting to compete for one of the two playoff spots in the division. So it will be a disappointment that they enter their Sunday showdown with St. Louis in fifth place in the five team division.
Ambush Head Coach Hewerton Moreira made three changes to his team from the side that lost on Friday night. Inserted into the lineup were Howard Miller, Jowayne Laidley, and Chris Mattingly. I spoke to Ambush Assistant Mark Litton who advised that the changes were less tactical than they were a reflection of players working hard in training and pushing for spots. Having squad depth is a luxury for coaches especially this late in the season.
The Ambush opened the scoring just as they have in their previous two matches. With 8:50 remaining in the opening quarter Magui Souza picked off a poor clearing attempt at the yellow line and scored on a deflected shot. The power play marker put the Ambush up 1-0.
The Tropics wasted little time in responding as with 8:19 remaining Andre Braithwaite did his best Ronaldo impersonation with several step overs and after the Ambush defender got leg-tangled and went to ground, Braithwaite beat Paulo Nascimento to the far post with an outside of the boot right footed poke.
The Ambush would restore their lead with 3:31 to go in the quarter when Zach Reget found Pepe with a centering feed after Pepe had gotten a step on his mark. The tap in would stake St. Louis to a 2-1 after the first quarter.
The Ambush would improve their lead with 12:21 to go in the second. Off a restart at the top of the arc Magui slid the ball to Clayton Matheus who beat Hugo Silva low with a ball driven near his feet.
The home side would make it 4-1 with 11:04 left in the half. Lucas Almeida played a restart along the half boards to the keepers left off the boards and into the box. Mario Marcos, who had used his body to shield the defender let the ball go across his body and then finished with his left foot.
With 8:19 to go until half Braithwaite would notch his second of the game and cut the lead to 4-2. When Reget tried to head a ball back to his keeper Braithwaite showed amazing agility for a big man as he picked off the pass with his boot high in the air and directed it into the net all in one motion. The goal cut the lead to 4-2.
The Tropics would inch even closer on a goal off a corner kick with 6:16 left in the stanza. Former Ambush forward Antonio Manfut played a ball back to Matt Clare who hit an absolute pill into the top far corner. The bomb cut the St. Louis lead to 4-3.
The Tropics would tie things up with 2:44 to go on a marker from Max Touloute. After corralling a ball at the top of the arc he faked a shot with his right foot. When the defender slid to block the expected attempt he cut the ball onto his his left foot and buried a shot into the top of the net. What had once been a comfortable three goal cushion for the home team was now gone.
The final 38 seconds of the half were nothing short of helter skelter. First Touloute stole the ball from Ambush defender Douglas Dos Santos near midfield. As he broke in on goal, receiving backside pressure from Dos Santos, he had the composure and class to chip the onrushing Paulo to give the Tropics their first lead of the game. A mere 12 seconds later the Tropics would add to that lead after Paulo was whistled for an ill advised three line violation. Victor Parreiras would make the Ambush pay when he stroked the resulting free kick into the top of the net from the yellow line as Paulo watched, rooted to his spot. The goal gave the Tropics, who only minutes earlier had faced a 4-1 deficit, an improbable 6-4 lead. The Ambush would mitigate the damages and respond with a goal of their own before half. After a slick feed from Almeida, Stefan St. Louis put one top shelf giving the Tropics defender, who had dropped in to cover Sliva, who had gone out to meet Almeida, no chance. The halftime horn sounded with the Tropics holding a 6-5 lead. Both coaches surely welcomed the break as an opportunity to rein their clubs back in after a crazy first half.
The second half started just as the first had ended. Only 15 seconds after the kickoff Manfut delicately floated a ball to the the back post which Ricardo Diegues nodded home to put Florida up 7-5.
Things settled down a bit, if you can call almost three minutes between tallies a calm in the storm. The Ambush would pull to within a goal as Pepe found himself in a 1-on-3 inside the Tropics zone. Rather than panic or needlessly give up possession he played a ball off the boards and found Reget who was the late man coming in support. Reget, not to be outdone by Clare’s earlier effort for Florida, hit an absolute screamer that Silva likely heard but did not see.
But the hometown joy was again short-lived as 21 seconds later the lead was extended back to two. Braithwaite would complete his hat trick coming out of the corner to the keeper’s right. His drive would take a deflection and find the net. Braithwaite was impressive all afternoon for both his power and skill on the ball. I don’t think the state of Florida has seen an athlete that combines this level of skill and intimidation since Shaq left for LA. If Andre start calling himself the Big Aristotle I will expect my share of the royalties.
Vadim Cojocov, who has impressed since being inserted into the lineup a few weeks ago, lending more proof to that depth of roster I mentioned in the open, would cut the lead to 8-7. After a pass from Felipe Silva, Vadim broke down the left wing and fired a worm burner that beat Silva between the legs. It was not the first time a shot near or around Silva’s feet troubled the Florida keeper.
With three minutes left in the third quarter the Ambush would again tie this game up and in doing so set up a barnstorming final quarter. Justin Stinson would finish off a pass from Dos Santos to knot the teams at 8-8. Stinson’s shot to the near post found the boards and then went in off Silva before sending the crowd into a frenzy.
The Ambush would reclaim the lead with 12:50 remaining in the game. Almeida would once again wear the playmaker’s hat as he ran the break like an NBA point guard complete with a saucy dish at the end. The recipient would be Stinson who would beat the keeper high near post. Silva who appeared to be bothered by a knock he suffered early in the contest was not able to move quickly enough to his right to stop the shot.
The Ambush would hold that lead for just over six minutes. With 6:44 left in regulation Anthony Arico’s shot from near the yellow line could not be corralled by Paulo. The ball bounded into the air and the diminutive Manfut was able to nod it home for the equalizer.
With the score tied at 9-9 the Tropics were presented with a golden opportunity to score a late game winner when with 2:14 left on the clock Dos Santos was issued a two minute penalty for boarding. Paulo was never truly troubled during the two minutes that followed and for the second time in as many games the Ambush were headed to overtime against an opponent from the Sunshine State.
Having played just shy of half of the ten minute overtime session it was Lucas Almeida who would send the fans hope happy. Almeida took a pass from Paulo and came down the left wing unmolested. Almeida showed that, despite his recent exploits as a playmaker, he can still finish. His blast struck the underside of the cross bar before dropping in the right side of the goal line for the Ambush. The goal set off a celebration in the stands and on the field as his teammates rushed the field creating a scrum with Lucas at the bottom.
The weekend split keeps the Ambush alive in the playoff race but was not what the team had hoped for, feeling they let one get away on Friday night and were probably fortunate to win Sunday. Assistant Coach Mark Litton confirmed this in a conversation post game. “We still need to learn to manage games,” Litton said. “We often are too cautious in the attacking end and in turn too rash in the defensive side of the ball.”
While overall he is proud of the team’s improvement this year he lamented letting some games slip away that would have greatly improved their playoff positioning, a sentiment that was also echoed pregame by Ambush GM Brian Roth.
Litton explained that the team has to know when to transition quickly from defense to offense and when they need to control tempo and possess the ball. Litton explained that it is about directional possession, which means not only going forward rapidly but knowing when to play negatively to change flow. Also that you have to be able to play in a way that does not just limit you to playing negatively when there is an opportunity to break down an opponent. But these are things that come with experience and Litton was quick to point out the number of rookies who are in the lineup and contributing for the team.
Next up, the Ambush host the resurgent and suddenly dangerous Harrisburg Heat. The Heat who are led by first year Head Coach and former Blast standout Pat Healey have recent wins over the Blast, Utica City, and the Wave. Litton and the rest of the staff know they will have their hands full Saturday night at Family Arena.