SPRINGFIELD >> Late October soccer is often decided by two things.
The first is defending. Teams that were staunch all season and can carry it into the cold weather are already at a huge advantage.
The second is set pieces. With goals from the run of play a scarcity, the ability to turn a dead ball into a goal is sometimes the only separation between two teams.
Friday afternoon, La Salle College High School did both as it topped Saint Joseph’s Prep 2-0 in a Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinal.
“The past two years of getting bounced in the semifinals, this group of seniors, and there’s seven of them who have been around for three years, they’ve tasted that heartache multiple times,” Explorers coach Tom McCaffrey said. “One of the things we talked about multiple time this year was not letting that happen. It’s something we’ll have to lock in on because this time of year, when the weather starts to change, it’s got to be restarts and very good defending.”
La Salle won the teams’ regular season meeting 3-0, but the Explorers weren’t taking anything out of that matchup. Expectedly, the intensity was high off the opening whistle and the officiating crew let the players battle, with some physical bumps and pushing going on up and down the pitch.
The Explorers were the better team getting forward in the first half, but didn’t get shots on goal, instead earning corner kicks. Forward Zach Hogan got in off a beautiful ball by Mike D’Angelo but his shot was deflected out for the first corner.
Midfield engine Spencer Patton had a good look wide and sub David Steinbach pushed a take wide when a deflection fell to his feet late in the first half.
“Coach said if we lose, we can’t come back from it, it’s win or go home from now on,” senior defender Jimmy Natale said. “We have to come out every game and give it our all.
“We’re a physical team, we’re a bigger team and I think it played to our advantage.”
La Salle’s first four corners kicks didn’t lead to any kind of payoff but the fifth changed that trend. Right back Joseph Brigidi trekked all the way across the field to the left corner where he played in a beautiful ball to the far post.
Natale, who was practically in the net, nodded it home for a goal before crashing off the post with 22:25 left in the first half.
“We knew the goalie liked to come out and was kind of sporadic so we thought to put one right where he was and see if he was going to do something about it,” Natale said. “He might have misplayed it and I was just there.”
Natale, Brigidi, James Hughes and Nicholas Hammel were also really good at their main role, defending in front of Brett Werner. Werner made three saves, none of which were notably dangerous.
“We’ve played together all season, we’re a good group of guys and we know to cover each and when to back off,” Natale said. “We know when one goes to shift, we all have to slide over and mark up.”
“They’ve done every job we’ve asked of them and really embraced it,” McCaffrey said. “Jimmy enjoys being in the the restarts, being in the mix and being the flick guy on the throw-ins. He embraces that job and today, he gets a great ball in and makes a great finish on the back post.”
Friday was not a cold afternoon, instead it was warm and sunny. Coupled with a high work rate team like the Hawks, McCaffrey saw some of his players were fatiguing faster than expected.
But the Explorers have bench guys for just that reason. So when the workhorses like JP Pluck, Mike D’Angelo, Spencer Patton and Zach Hogan got tired, fresh legs were ready.
One of those sets of legs belongs to Chris Metzler, a sophomore who’s made some key plays all season, like the game winning goal against Father Judge.
“Coming off the bench, we’re just looking to keep the energy going,” Metzler said. “It gives everyone an extra burst when some of the team starts to get tired.”
Metzler’s energy would turn a tense 1-0 lead into a two-goal advantage about eight minutes into the second half.
A long ball found the head of Hogan, the tall senior forward, who flicked it on with Metzler in hot pursuit.
“I beat the last defender 1-on-1, I got the touch around and saw the goalie coming out,” Metzler said. “He seemed to be coming out too quickly so I took a touch around instead of trying to force a shot too early. I beat him and had a wide open net.”
Metzler, with a horde of La Salle students staring at him and the ball, ready to explode in celebration, almost looked too wide open. But with composure, the sophomore put it away and gave his team a shot in the arm.
“I had to make sure it was on target and soft, but not soft enough to let a defender get it,” Metzler said.
The Prep started to get the ball up the field with more frequency in the second half, but La Salle defenders and midfielders who had dropped back kept blocking shots and clearing the ball away.
La Salle will face a red-hot Archbishop Wood, a 4-0 winner over Archbishop Ryan, in the semifinals on Wednesday. After losing to Roman Catholic in the same round the last two years, the Explorers aren’t taking the scenario lightly.
“Getting knocked out by Roman, it wasn’t a great way to feel,” Natale said. “I don’t want to end three times in the semis, it wouldn’t be a good way to go out. I want to win a championship.”
October soccer isn’t always glamorous, but it rewards the steadfast and the brave. Attitude and desire make winning plays.
The PCL playoffs might as well be states for the Explorers, as any loss from here on out ends their season. With a group of seniors who feel they’ve fallen short the last few years, La Salle’s vets are playing with a little extra chip.
“Today, I saw it,” McCaffrey said. “They came out today with a different edge in some of them. They recognized that this could have been their last 80 minutes in a La Salle uniform. They are embracing that and that’s what they’re really harping on. They want a Catholic League championship and they want it bad and they recognize if any of them take even a minute off, it’s going to hurt us and cost us this time of year.”
SAINT JOSEPH’S PREP 0 0 – 0
LA SALLE 1 1 – 2
Goals: L – Jimmy Natale (Joseph Brigidi) 18′, Chris Metzler (Zach Hogan) 48′ Shots: SJP – 3, L – 5. Corners: SJP – 1, L – 8. Saves: SJP – 3, L – Brett Werner 3