By: Benjamin Peacock
Let’s start with the good news. The Little Rock Rangers are in the Heartland Conference playoffs. More on that in a moment. The bad news is the Stags dropped the last regular season match to Demize NPSL 0-2 on Saturday night at War Memorial Stadium, finishing the season with a 4-5-1 record.
The Rangers looked to come out strong with early shots taken by midfielders Trevor Reed and Jaden Hoth. But it would be Demize who struck first in the 29th minute. Following at 35 minutes, striker Lance Crabtree, freshly minted to Team of the Week by both International Soccer Network and Top Drawer Soccer, received a pass from Daishi Uekuri and neatly dropped it into the goal but the line judge raised the flag ruling it offside.
In what would be the arguably be the most emotional match of the season, head coach Will Montgomery offered his thoughts on the tone these missed chances set for the rest of the match. “It appeared the guys came out a little lethargic. The ball wasn’t being moved as much as we wanted in the first half. In the first ten minutes we had two chances to score a goal and we didn’t capitalize on that. You can tell that affected [the players] psychologically.”
The contention for the officiating rose rapidly from that point. Forward Sebastian Kennedy was called for a foul on a tackle in the box and Demize was awarded a penalty kick (42′). Goalkeeper Walid Birrou chose the right spot on the kick but the ball still found its way through to give Demize a 2-0 lead going into the half.
When the teams came back out, the whistle was blown and the cards were raised with regularity. The Rangers were aggressive on shots taken but the Demize goalkeeper was up to the task, including saving both a successive shot and rebound attempt by Donald Benamna and Crabtree in the 59th. Benamna went down on the play from an uncalled penalty and came out of the match for a few minutes.
On the sequence that followed, the Rangers drew Demize’s keeper out of the box, who blocked the ball with his arm earning an immediate red card. However, after consulting with the linesman and a glance up at the replay on the scoreboard, the red was overturned to a yellow.
“The official was on top of the handball call and I felt he made the correct call with the red card because it was going to be a goal scoring opportunity. If his hand was not up in the air it would have been a goal. For him to go to his linesman to get confirmation on his call… I asked why he reversed the call and did not get an answer,” Montgomery said after the match.
Further evidence of the match not being in the officials’ control came at 64 minutes when Demize sunk the ball past Birrou from a clear offside pass by about 5 yards that was not called. Again, the officials looked to the scoreboard as the coaching staff and crowd of over 2,000 gave the referees an earful. The offside ruling finally came.
Despite the Rangers efforts, which notably also included a brilliant fingertip save by Birrou at 66 minutes and a totally Benamna take away by Benamna at 75 minutes for the best chance taken to score by the Rangers for the night, the boys in white were unable to get on the board. Substitutes made in the second half included Alex Guadron for Kennedy (53′), Ulises Caba Cordova for Crabtree (70′), Sabelo for Reed (75′), and Blaine Hickman for Hayden Tucker (76′).
Fortunately, the Rangers were guaranteed a playoff spot, but this match dictated whether the Rangers would play at home on Wednesday or hit the road. As fans left and the lights switched off, the Rangers still held a chance for the home berth. Ozark FC and FC Wichita were in the middle of a tied weather-delayed match. Should Ozark win or draw, Wichita would drop and the Rangers would finish in second. Ozark went on to win 3-1, giving the Rangers just what they needed.
Reed, no stranger to the task ahead of the Rangers in his fourth season, knows the team will have to regroup quickly. “We know playoffs are super quick with two games in four days. Anything can happen as we saw last year when we won the first one and then went on the road and won the second. So we know what it takes to get it done and it is just about us coming out and doing it,” Reed said.
Demize will turn right around and come back to War Memorial on Wednesday in what will surely be a grudge match for the Heartland semifinal. The four teams in the playoffs are Tulsa Athletic as the one seed, the Rangers, and then Demize and Ozark in 3rd and 4th place, marking their first entry to playoffs for their teams.