Don Smart carried the Forward Madison attack in the club’s first-ever home victory Saturday, a 3-1 result over previously unbeaten Toronto FC II, but it was a handful of defensive gems that kept the Flamingos in the game and allowed the Jamaican to shine.
Smart, the first player signed by the club, had two assists and added a stoppage-time goal on the game’s final touch a week after missing the home opener due to a red card the previous week.
“He’s a special player for us,” Head Coach Daryl Shore said after the match. “The old saying is, you can’t teach speed, and speed kills. It was fitting that he finally got himself on the score sheet with the goal.”
Smart’s speed was key in Madison’s first goal, as he chased a ball that seemed to be headed out of bounds and kept it in, then took a touch all the way to the end line and launched a high cross to the far post. The pass found Paulo Júnior, who fought off a defender and tucked it in past Toronto goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell to put Madison up 1-0 and go into the history books as the first to score for Forward Madison at Breese Stevens field.
The game could have been quite different at that point, as the goal came just minutes after midfielder Eric Schneider missed a tackle, leaving Toronto’s Jordan Perruzza behind the defense and one-on-one with Madison goalkeeper Ryan Coulter, who dove to his right and deflected Perruzza’s point-blank effort.
The game went into halftime 1-1 thanks to a remarkable individual effort from Jacob Shaffelburg, who dribbled past three Forward Madison defenders and finished with authority in the 53rd minute.
“That kid’s a really special player,” Shore said of Shaffelburg.
Smart’s speed came into play again in the 68th minute, as Paulo Júnior put a long ball into space and Smart tracked it down near the end line in the right side of the penalty area. With Mason Toye and Paulo Júnior drifting toward goal and attracting the attention of the defense, Smart found Carter Manley coming all the way up from his right back position, in the box unmarked. Smart played an easy pass back and Manley finished with authority to put the Flamingos ahead for good.
Things got nervy for the home side near the end, as Coulter was once again called upon to push a curling free kick just wide in the 90th minute, and center back Connor Tobin had to clear a ball off his own goal line when a shot bounced off Coulter’s hand but appeared goal-bound five minutes into stoppage time.
As Toronto pushed frantically forward to try and find an equalizer, Forward Madison caught them in a counterattack deep into stoppage time. Forward Josiel Nuñez snagged possession and pushed a nicely-weighted pass into the left corner for Paulo Júnior, who crossed just in front of the goal to a waiting Smart, who tapped it home and sent the 3,806 fans on hand into a frenzy.
Both Shore and Smart said a fast start was key to the victory.
“We had to go out from the get-go, and Coach told us to get after them in the first ten minutes,” Smart said. “You saw that we had them on their heels so we had momentum so we said ‘let’s keep going’.”
“We wanted to initiate the game tonight,” Shore said. “We wanted to score in the first half. We wanted to come in at halftime ahead. We didn’t do that. But the fact that we scored the first goal tonight, and then the fact in the second half, with a couple of adjustments that we made, we kept pressing the game. Our goals were earned. Kudos to the guys for staying after it.”
Shore said Coulter’s 22nd minute one-on-one save was also a key moment in the match.
“Massive save,” he said. “Goalkeepers are called on to make a big save, and Ryan’s done that for us. So far this year, every game he’s played in, he’s come up with a big save. That keeps us in the game, gets our momentum going the other way.”
Shore had high praise for Coulter, who was initially signed to back up Bryan Sylvestre and act as goalkeepers coach.
“We knew he was a good goalkeeper. We also know we have a good goalkeeper in Bryan who can’t get on the field right now because Ryan’s been so good,” Shore said. “You want to have two number one goal keepers on your roster and we feel like we have that. He’s been a great addition to our group, not only as our goalkeeper, but also as a player-coach. He’s a calming influence in the back for our guys and comes up with big save when you need him.”
Shore also had praise for the fans, including The Flock and other supporters groups, who were once again in full throat for the full 90 minutes.
“Those guys are going to win us some games,” he said of the supporters. “Electric is a great word (for the atmosphere in the stadium.) And our guys, they know it, they feel it, they feed off of it. We’re going to be the best stadium in the league. The Flock has made sure that this is going to be a tough place to play. When teams look at (USL) League One, we want this to be the team that they look at because this is the atmosphere of lower league soccer and this is what it should be. And are our fans have proven this is the best in the league.”
“I love this weather and I love the fans. You can’t get any better,” Smart said.
Over the span of two weeks, Forward has vaulted from ninth place in the ten-team league to fifth, just one spot outside the playoffs, thanks to a 0-0 draw in the snow against Greenville Triumph and last night’s win over Toronto.
Forward Madison gets only a couple days off before they travel to Milwaukee for a midweek fixture in the first round of the US Open Cup against Milwaukee Bavarians, one of the state’s oldest and best amateur clubs, Tuesday night. They’ll resume league play next Saturday at Chattanooga and return home May 18 to host first-place South Georgia Tormenta.