“Playoffs are usually not the best soccer. Sometimes it’s about grit,” Forward Madison Head Coach Daryl Shore said Wednesday following the team’s final training session before they head to Dallas to take on top-seeded North Texas FC in the USL League One semifinal on Saturday at 7 pm.
It’s taken that kind of grit over the past two and a half months to get into those playoffs.
In its last eight matches going back to the beginning of August, neither team has scored more than one goal; Madison has won four of those 1-0, lost two of them 1-0, and had two games end in draws, 1-1 and 0-0. Those gritty wins and draws put the team in a position to clinch a playoff spot Sept. 27 with a win at Tucson, but a 1-1 draw there meant they’d need a win at second place Lansing Ignite on Oct. 5, which they got thanks to a 43rd minute goal from midfielder JC Banks and a stellar defensive effort that frustrated Lansing’s potent attack all night. The win ended Lansing’s 12-game unbeaten streak and handed Ignite its first home loss since April 26.
Head Coach Daryl Shore said at the beginning of that run that every game would have to be approached like playoff soccer, since the team would need to take points from every match to make the playoffs officially.
Banks, the first Wisconsin native to sign with Madison, said this team has the grit it needs.
“I think we do. I think we could scrap,” he said. “I think in the playoffs you’re going to have to scrap a little bit. In the games, it’s a lot of bounces, you know you have to be the one that wants to fight a little bit more to get there, and I think we have the guys that can do that.”
Center back and team captain Connor Tobin said the team has not only grit, but the ability to bounce back from adversity.
“I think it’s been the resiliency that we’ve had,” Tobin said. “We’ve dealt with a lot of stuff this year. Things always haven’t gone our way, but this group responded, and we’ve had a lot of games recently where our backs have been against the wall, and we felt like there were must-wins. The majority of those games we’ve come out with results. This group’s battle-tested.”
A familiar foe
Forward Madison has faced North Texas four times, more than any other opponent, and has beaten them twice, both times when North Texas was short-handed without their leading scorers at Breese Stevens Field. North Texas has won both of its home matches against the Flamingos, once in week two, 1-0 on a 95th minute penalty, and again 3-1 on May 22 when the Texans scored twice in the opening seven minutes.
North Texas is the academy team of MLS club FC Dallas and is comprised mostly of tremendously talented teenagers. Their speed, skill and raw talent will be matched against Forward Madison’s much more seasoned group — the Flamingos’ roster includes players who’ve competed in top flight leagues in the US, Mexico and Panama as well as the international stage.
“They’re not inexperienced,” Shore said of the North Texas youngsters. “They’re a group that has the best Academy in MLS. FC Dallas has been known to have the best Academy for a long time, and a lot of these kids have played together for a number of years. So, they’ve got experience. They’ve won championships at the Academy level, and they’ve also proven by winning 17 games in a professional league, that inexperienced sometimes doesn’t matter. Youth is well served on their team, and the good thing is, is we’ve got some guys that have played in some big games. So, hopefully, that’ll help us.”
Tobin said some of the veterans on the Madison side will look to keep the younger players focused.
“It’s trying to inspire confidence in some of the younger guys to do your job,” he said. “You don’t need to do anything more than that. Don’t let the moment get on top of you. It’s just a simple thing of, keep doing what you’re doing. We’ve been successful for a reason and keep it going. Fight for the guy next to you, and take care of your business, and usually good things happen when you do that.”
He also said the team is ready to absorb the pressure that the young guns of North Texas are sure to bring.
“I think it starts on the defensive side of the ball and our willingness to make things hard on them, to condense lines, and make it hard for them to find space, and then from there, the more times you win the ball, you give yourselves opportunities to hurt them,” he said. “This time of year is not about playing pretty stuff. It’s about playing effective soccer. I think this group showed in Lansing that we’re capable of that; we’re capable of being very hard to play against. Playoff soccer is about minimizing mistakes, and then capitalizing when the other team does make them. But, I think we’re getting better and better at that each week.”
Banks said it’s good to have beaten the regular season champions twice, but it won’t matter much Saturday night.
“It definitely helps the confidence, but those games are done now. And playoffs are different. So, it’ll be a different game. You have to show up and be ready,” he said.
“Don’t let the boys get hot”
Even if those games are in the past, Forward Madison is undoubtedly riding some momentum into the playoffs.
“I kept telling all the guys stating mid-season, and it started as a little bit of a joke, but I’m serious about it: ‘Don’t let the boys get hot,’” Tobin said. “You look at almost every sport here in America, the team that sneaks into the playoffs that has a little bit of momentum going, that’s the team that no one wants to face. So don’t let the boys get hot.”
“Everybody’s pretty pumped up. These opportunities don’t come a lot in your career. This is my ninth year and this’ll be my third semi-finals,” said Banks, who also made league semifinals with Rochester Rhinos and Minnesota United. “You never know when you’re going to get that next opportunity, and you don’t always have a team that you think can win a championship. So, to have that is good, but now we just have to prove it.”
“The best fans in the league”
Following last weekend’s win over Lansing, Tobin gave a great deal of credit to The Flock supporters group and the fans in general — about 150 of whom made the trek to support the team in Michigan.
“In a lot of ways, they’ve willed us into the playoffs,” he said.
Forward Madison led USL League One in average attendance, with 4,292 fans coming to the average league home game. That’s more than 800 better, on average, than the club in second place, the Richmond Kickers. North Texas is seventh in the 10-team league with 1,367 fans on average.
Forward Madison FC hopes that at least some of the fans in attendance Saturday will be wearing pink and blue — the club has offered to pay for the game tickets of any fans who are able to make the trip to Dallas this weekend.
“It’s … a great testament to not just our players, but our organization, our fans, and obviously the city of Madison, to have a team in the playoffs in year one,” Shore said Wednesday.
Asked what he’d like to say to the fans, Banks said, “Thank you for everything all year. I think you could see it in the last game going to Lansing. Even (Lansing) fans walking out, you could see how they were impressed by The Flock being there, and the noise they were putting on. We have to try to carry that in our play. Hopefully, some can make it down for the trip, but we have the best fans in the league. And hopefully, at the end, we can have the best team in the league.”
For those who can’t make the trip, the game will be broadcast on ESPN+. The club and The Flock are hosting a watch party at The Brass Ring on East Washington Avenue in Madison.
Ecuadorian striker Danny Tenorio, who missed the first two months of the season with a left knee injury, is out of the lineup after sustaining a right knee injury in a collision in the 15th minute of Saturday’s game at Lansing.
“I really feel bad for him because he did such a good job to come back from the injury, and battle fitness for such a long time,” Shore said. “But then, to finally get into a groove where he was getting a good amount of games, and playing well for us. It’s just heartbreaking for him.”
Striker Don Smart, the club’s leading scorer, will be a game-time decision, Shore said, after he took a knock to the ankle toward the end of the Lansing match.
“He hasn’t trained this week. Hoping that he can get out and train tomorrow, but he’s still feeling the effects of a really bad tackle,” Shore said.
Goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre, who posted a 0.38 goals against average over the past eight weeks, will also be a game day decision. He missed the final game of the regular season with a leg injury, but Ryan Coulter stepped in and got the clean sheet against Lansing.
“There’s no issues with (Sylvestre) mobility-wise, agility wise, being able to move, make saves,” Shore said. “It’s all about kicking, and we thought he was good to go, and then on Friday (October 4) he went to kick one ball in training and he couldn’t go.”
Coulter will be ready on Saturday if needed.
“I’ve told people this all along. We’ve got two number one goalkeepers on our team,” Shore said. “Ryan stepped in and did an awesome job again against Lansing. So, regardless of what goalkeeper we have in goal on Saturday night, we’re confident that either one of them is going to get the job done for us.”
Shore said Minnesota United loanees Wyatt Omsberg and Carter Manley, who have become stalwarts of the Flamingos’ back line, will be with the team throughout the playoffs.
A note on format
The USL League One playoffs will use the same format as most knockout competitions. If the game is tied after 90 minutes, the teams will play two 15-minute extra periods. It is not a “golden-goal” competition, meaning even if one team scores in those overtime periods, play will continue for the full 30 extra minutes. If the game remains tied at the end of those overtime periods, the game will go to a best-of-five penalty shootout.