Forward Madison FC inched back into playoff position with a 1-1 draw against South Georgia Tormenta in a game many of the 4,215 fans at Breese Stevens Field might say should have given all three points to the home side. Paulo Júnior’s fifth goal of the season, a header from a perfectly curled diagonal ball in from JC Banks, put the Flamingos ahead in the 24th minute, but Marco Micoletto’s controversial goal with just 10 minutes left to play kept Tormenta solidly in the playoff hunt.

Forward Madison opened the match in a more possession-oriented posture than usual, operating from the back in a slow and methodical fashion. The game opened up after the first fifteen minutes, with each team creating dangerous chances. Goalkeeping featured largely in the first half, as Forward Madison’s Bryan Sylvester and Pablo Jara of Tormenta SC — two of the best keepers in the league — were called on to make spectacular saves. 

There was little Jara could do, though, to keep Paulo’s strike from the back of the net. Banks, playing a deeper midfield position than he has in recent weeks, took a pass from Christian Diaz and made a long, looping one-time pass to the far post, where Paulo had sprung free to give the pass a blistering header past a sprawling Jara.

Forward Madison dominated the second half, leaving Tormenta’s midfielders chasing the ball for much of the period and not allowing a shot on goal until Micoletta’s effort from 19 yards was initially saved by Sylvestre, but popped up and over the Madison keeper’s head. He was able to snag the ball and throw it out, but the linesman determined that the ball had crossed the end line and the goal was given.

“These games are about one play and we made the play in the first half,” Forward Madison head coach Daryl Shore said after the match. “We had the momentum in the game and then they made their play.”

With Minnesota United loanee defenders Carter Manley and Wyatt Omsburg in St. Paul for United’s friendly against Mexican side CF Pachua, all eyes were on Flamingos’ back line. Shaun Russel got the start at left back and midfielder Eric Leonard was asked to move from his midfield position to shore up the backline. He was more than up to the task, snuffing out more than a few Tormenta attacks. Russel took a forward role as Manley often does, even getting a shot on goal early in the second half. 

Eric Leonard plays a ball out of the back in the second half of Saturday’s 1-1 draw.

“He’s a warrior,” Shore said of Leonard. “I thought Shaun did a good job filling in at left back. And then Eric did a great job filling in at center back. I was real proud with the whole back line tonight, and pleased with their performance.”

“Naturally I’m a defensive-minded guy, but when Coach needed someone to fill in the role, I just try to do the best I can in the spot,” Leonard said. “It was big on Connor (Tobin) and myself trying to keep the line so we could force offsides on a lot of their direct play. But it also came down to times where me and Connor had to be good 1 v 1 defensively and kind of nitpick the ball from the other team.”

Despite not getting all three points, the Flamingos remain confident in their quest for a berth in the inaugural USL League One playoffs with just four games remaining. The top four teams will battle for the title in two rounds of winner-take-all games in October.

“None of these games are going to be easy,” Shore said. “I mean, the last four games are going to be hard. So we’ve just got to keep grinding and we’ve got to go back, watch video, get better.”

“We’re not happy that we didn’t get all three points, but, as you can see, we’ve got a group of guys who are willing to fight to the end,” Leonard said. “I’m not worried about the group and I think that, if anything, it’s going to motivate us even more going into this last week. So I’m excited to see how we do it. I know these boys and I know that they’re willing to put anything on the line to get us into fourth-place spot.”

Madison, Tormenta and Chattanooga Red Wolves are all tied on 33 points, but Madison is ahead and in fourth place on goal differential, meaning the Flamingos need every point they can get.

Forward Madison travels to Richmond to take on the Kickers next Saturday. The previous two meetings between Madison and Richmond have resulted in a 1-0 win for the road team.