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Set piece separates La Salle from North Penn

SPRINGFIELD >> Soccer is a game of fluidity, movement and inventiveness, the ball almost in constant motion.

But when the ball does come to a stop and players hurry to form walls and set up runs, there is always the potential for a game-changing moment. Set pieces are a rare currency in soccer and its often the team that is able to exchange them for goals that finds itself a winner.

Saturday morning, North Penn and La Salle met in a match that lived up to expectations. Both teams went up the down the pitch, connecting passes, creating chances and generally looking like either of them could win.

But it was the Explorers, by value of a set piece goal, that won the battle 1-0.

“When you look at the results North Penn’s had, they’ve been playing really, really well, they’re stacked,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffrey said. “We knew it was going to be tough. That was a high level opponent we wanted to get in before a big week in our league. We expected them to come out and fly around and make it difficult and they did.”

The game’s only goal came in the 47th minute when La Salle (9-0-0, 5-0-0 PCL) defender James Hughes headed a tremendous set piece service from defender Joseph Bridigi. Bridigi, who had an excellent match in his main job defending, looped a gorgeous ball off the right side to Hughes stationed on the far post for the re-direct.

“We had to stick together, I made one play but it doesn’t describe the game, it was a team effort,” Bridigi said. “We knew they were coming off a big win against CB South and that it was going to be a dogfight from the beginning. We just stuck together.”

Just a minute prior, North Penn (6-2-0, 4-1-0 SOL Continental) lost its senior leader on defense in center back Noah Kwortnik when he had to leave the match after getting hit in the head. For precautionary reasons, Kwortnik did not return to the game although the Knights did step up in his absence.

Whether Kwortnik’s towering presence would have made a difference on the set piece is a question that can’t be answered. Regardless, the Explorers still had to execute and they did.

North Penn didn’t lack for chances either and the razor-thin margin between the two was just what the Knights had expected. Fittingly, both teams have also now allowed just three goals on the season.

“It’s why we play every year, we know they’re good in the Catholic League, which is a great league and we’re generally pretty good in our league,” Knights coach Paul Duddy said. “It’s a good high school boys game. It’s certainly not the result we wanted and the chances we had the last 15 minutes, it’s a shame we didn’t get one. But their keeper (Brett Werner) played great.”

Defensively, La Salle did its best to contain North Penn’s dynamic attacking core and for the most part was able to keep the Knights in check. Central midfielder Joseph Pluck spent much of the match marking North Penn’s central midfield dynamo in Mike Kohler.

Kohler had his moments for sure and McCaffery expected as much, but Pluck’s effort allowed the back line to focus on checking the likes of Nate Baxter, Aiden Jerome and Luke McMahon. And in the instances where Kohler worked his magic past a defender or two, La Salle was able to slow him just enough for the second wave to get in his way.

McMahon was a bit of a surprise inclusion in the North Penn lineup after going down late in Thursday’s match and limping off the field. But the sophomore looked no worse for wear on Saturday, creating a bushel of chances and nearly equalized late in the second half, denied only by a terrific one-handed sprawling save from Werner.

“He was taped up, our guys know this is always a great team and Tommy McCaffrey always does a great job with them,” Duddy said. “He wanted to be out there. It’s a good rivalry for us.”

After scoring, La Salle changed its approach a little bit, looking to attack more out of counters and making safe plays in the second and final thirds. This wasn’t a circle the wagons and bunker in strategy, but with such a quality team on the other side, there was no need to be overly aggressive chasing another goal.

“As soon as we scored you could see (North Penn’s) level went up, they knew they had to bring the game to us,” McCaffrey said. “You never want to sit in and park the bus in a game like this. It should be an up and down flow but we did go to a counter-attacking style to make sure we didn’t give anything up. When that happens and you invite pressure to a degree, things like that are going to happen because they did a very good job in the last 15 (minutes) of putting it back on us.”

Indeed, North Penn pressed hard for a tying goal right down to the finish. But the Knights’ set piece finishing was not as clinical as La Salle’s. Kohler had a free kick from 19 yards sky over the bar while Jerome had a free kick knocked down and when presented with a rebound, he too put the shot high.

Not much later, McMahon had his chance parried away by Werner and a late, late scramble in front of the net saw Bridigi sell out to stuff out Johnston’s shot from close range.

“It was a reaction,” Bridigi said. “I don’t slide often, but I felt I had to there so I went for it.”

Both teams head into pivotal weeks. La Salle has Father Judge and Roman Catholic, last year’s PCL runner-up and champion while North Penn visits Pennridge on Tuesday and hosts Central Bucks East, its only other loss this season on Thursday.

Picking up a win over a high-quality nonleague opponent was just what La Salle needed heading into contests with teams considered the class of the PCL.

“This is a huge energy booster,” Bridigi said. “We’re starting to make some noise in the league and this gets us looking forward to the games to come.”

North Penn will be looking to move past the setback quickly, as Kohler and midfielder Nick Terchek left the field already thinking about a team workout on Sunday. Duddy said his players may sulk about some of their missed chances for a day, but they’ll be back Monday ready to get after a new week.

There’s certainly one thing that will be practiced quite a bit on Monday.

“We need work on our set pieces,” Duddy said. “We had how many in dangerous areas, from 30 to 25 yards in, we probably had 10 set pieces and when you have that many, you have to come out with a goal.”

La Salle 1, North Penn 0
North Penn 0 0 – 0
La Salle 0 1 – 1
Goals: L – James Hughes (Joseph Bridigi) 49’ Shots: NP – 4, L- 2. Corners: N- 1, L- 1. Saves: N – Bobby Dean 1, L – Brett Werner 4.

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