Fusion Defeat Long Island Rough Riders Saturday Night To Win USL League 2 National Final
Spectacular second-half goals by Nathaniel Opoku and Marley Edwards gave the Ventura County Fusion a 2-1 victory Saturday night over the Long Island Rough Riders in the USL League Two national championship game in front of a packed house at Ventura College Stadium. The Fusion has now won the national championship twice, the other time being in 2009.
The Fusion entered the 32-team playoffs as the 5th seed in the Western Conference, after finishing second in the Southwest Division with an 8-2-2 record. The team, however, entered the title game having won eight straight games dating back to July 1. In the playoffs, the Fusion took out some of the best teams in the country including the Flatirons Rush, Southern California Seahorses, Ballard FC and Flint City Bucks. The Rough Riders, featuring east coast college players, advanced to the title game after winning the Eastern Conference with a record of 15-1-2.
Both teams came out in the first half trying to figure a way through their opponent’s defense. Fusion head coach Mike Elias typically employs a high press to create turnovers in the opponent’s half and that was the strategy against the Roughriders. The offensive trio of striker Logan Farrington and wingers Opoku and Edwards pressured the Rough Rider defenders relentlessly in the first 10 minutes, wreaking havoc and keeping the ball in the Fusion’s offensive half. A turnover gave Edwards a chance to put the Fusion on the board early after the Roughriders lost the ball 30 yards out on the left side, but the Fusion winger’s curler sailed two feet over the bar.
At the 17-minute mark, the Fusion had another chance with midfielder Bastien Oberli combining with Edwards on a give and go that Oberli then rolled across the face of goal towards a sliding Opoku whose tap-in was deflected at the last second by scrambling Roughrider defender Pierce Infuso.
The Fusion defense, especially midfielders Oberli, Julian Madrigal and Henry Smith-Hastie, sealed off forward progress through the midfield. In response, the Rough Riders humped the ball over the top toward hulking striker Matthew Vowinkle time and time again. Vowinkle, however, was shadowed by Fusion center backs Gio Calderon and Juan Pablo Alvarez who kept him in check and denied the Long Island offense any type of a foothold in the Fusion half. The Roughriders didn’t manage a shot until the 36th minute when a header by Jayden Ried ricocheted off the head of Vowinkle but sailed just wide of Tetsuya Kadono’s goal.
The first half ended in a scoreless draw and Elias decided to change things up.
“They had done their homework and figured out what we were doing,” said Elias. “So we had to change things up in the second half and it worked fantastically. We pushed the fullbacks higher and were able to create more opportunities.”
The new formation worked and the Fusion started to create chances. But at the 54-minute mark, Long Island stole the ball from Oberli just past midfield and countered. After an intricate series of passes, Justin Weiss took a through ball from Roc Carles Puig and slammed it past Kadono to give the Roughriders a 1-0 lead.
That goal would prove to be Long Island’s high water mark. Elias changed his formation from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 that morphed into a 4-4-1-1 on defense and brought in Academy product Sergio Villapando for Julian Madrigan to juice the offense. Elias put Villapando up top as a second striker next to Farrington, doubling the pressure on the Rough Rider defenders. The strategy paid off five minutes later as Villapando drove down the right side of the field to the touchline before dumping a pass to Opoku directly to the right of the goal. Opoku, with his back to goal, controlled the pass and floated a deftly weighted bicycle kick over goalie Wessel Speel’s head and into the Roughrider goal. Elias says it just might be the goal of the tournament.
“That or the last one,” said Elias, “the one Nate hit in our semifinal. Any goal in the playoff is special, but when it comes to the final, a goal like that is a win in any game.”
From that point on, it was all Fusion, and a go-ahead score seemed like a foregone conclusion. It finally came in the 83d minute when Villapondo laid a pass off to Edwards 18 yards out to the right of the Roughrider goal. Edwards took one dribble toward the middle and sent a screamer low past Speel into the bottom corner of the net to give the Fusion the lead and ultimately the championship.
“This has been a great journey,” said Elias after the game. “We shared it with a great group of boys, and this is the ultimate. I said to them the first day that we were in the training room that I wanted to win everything this year. Guess what, we won everything this year. It’s absolutely superb. They surprised me, they stepped up to the challenge and they are just a fantastic group of boys.”