UPPER MORELAND >> The start of the season had not been kind to Cheltenham.
The Panthers had lost every game they played. They had scored just two goals. They were, as forward Findlay Peet said, “kicking and hoping.” In short terms, they were a team without a direction.
First-year coach Bill Tonkin decided it was time for a change.
Tuesday, the Panthers debuted a new formation. Peet scored in the first five minutes. Cheltenham dominated statistically and topped host Upper Moreland 3-0.
“We had gone 0-5 leading up to this so yesterday, Coach came in and told us we were switching up the formation and to play to our strengths,” Peet said. “It proved to be a good switch and we got our first win.”
Peet scored two goals, and nearly had a third as the Panthers out-shot the hosts by an 18-4 margin. Cheltenham stretched the Golden Bears, attacked and created chances all afternoon. It was without a doubt the best performance they had turned in all season.
For Upper Moreland, which also came in winless in five tries, it’s an ongoing process to figure out the team’s identity. The Golden Bears also have a first-year coach in Matt Duffey, and his challenge has been trying to get his mostly-underclassmen starting lineup to decide how it wants to play.
“We’ve been getting caught a lot giving up early goals and we’re getting caught defensively in no-man’s land,” Duffey said. “Sometimes they get it and do really well and sometimes they don’t. Today, we were fighting a little bit but we got spread out a lot and weren’t covering our positions.”
The back line is where Upper Moreland needs the most work, with players still used to the high-up, attack-oriented style of the last few years and not Duffey’s more balanced system. It was evident early on that Cheltenham would be able to stretch the defense and that’s exactly what happened on the opening goal.
A through ball to Peet led to the striker pulling away from a center back and putting a composed finish by UM keeper Matt Sheldon in the opening five minutes. The Panthers had plenty more chances to score that first half, but just having a lead was enough.
“The build-up is my teammates always working hard and working for me,” Peet said. “When I was in on goal, I was thinking ‘don’t miss,’ put it past the keeper and put it away. It was huge, it gave us the confidence, it was only our third goal of the season but the team fed off the energy.”
The main reason Cheltenham couldn’t score again in the first half was the play of Sheldon, a junior in his first year starting. Sheldon finished the game with 15 saves, a strong bounce-back after a subpar outing against Harry S Truman on Monday and largely the reason the score wasn’t more one-sided.
“He had an outstanding game today,” Duffey said. “He kept us in it today. A lot of those shots came from in very close.”
Peet said he hadn’t seen any glimpses that a performance like Tuesday would be possible in the team’s first slate of games. But where he was expecting a long season, Tonkin saw that possibility and knew he had to do something to unlock it.
Tonkin called it “remarkable” to see how far his guys had come in the month-plus they’ve been together.
“We wanted to get more people involved,” Tonkin said. “It was too stagnant, we needed to get more open up front. We created a lot of chaos up there, a lot of confusion. I’m happy with how they played today.”
Cheltenham has a high work rate across the board and the team’s second goal came as a product of its relentlessness. Peet had a shot saved by Sheldon but chased the rebound and fired a second salvo, only for it to ring the crossbar and fall to the other post. There, Zack Gharrafi was able to push it past a defender for the 2-0 lead midway through the second half.
Peet finished the scoring with a penalty kick in the final two minutes, a goal that wasn’t needed to determine the outcome but very needed for the mentality of the Panthers.
“We had to get the work rate into a positive direction,” Tonkin said. “Everything we taught them yesterday, they went out and did to perfection almost today.”
Upper Moreland is hoping to be a much stronger team in the second half of the season and the desire is there. Duffey said guys are asking him to practice on weekends and want to get better, it’s just that most of them aren’t experienced.
Another critical component to the Panthers’ win was keeping a clean sheet defensively. Keeper Justin Grady made three saves, defender John Tulane saved a ball off the goal line and center back Ben Smith helped dominate the air game.
“Justin’s happy, he kept the goals out and didn’t score on himself today,” Tonkin said with his bench howling in laughter.
“We learned that as a team, we can win and we learned who the leaders on this team are,” Peet said. “It goes back to our coach, he’s doing a great job.”
CHELTENHAM 3, UPPER MORELAND 0
CHELTENHAM 1 2 – 3
UPPER MORELAND 0 0 – 0
Goals: C – Findlay Peet, Zack Gharrafi, Peet (PK). Shots: C – 18, UM – 4. Saves: C – Justin Grady 3, UM – Matt Sheldon 15.