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By Benjamin Peacock
It’s not the story the Little Rock Rangers players and staff nor the over 2,000 fans in the stands of War Memorial Stadium had written in their minds, but the 2019 season came to an end Wednesday night. The Rangers faced Demize NPSL in the Heartland Conference semifinal four days after meeting them in the final season match. The playoff battle came down to penalty kicks that resulted in Demize’s advancement and the Rangers’ final showing on the pitch for the year.
It was a match in which the Rangers dominated set pieces, shots, and possession, but the one number that mattered most eluded them. Striker Lance Crabtree netted one early (7′) but was ruled offside. And then a defensive miscue in which a defender and goalkeeper collided on a set piece opportunity minutes later (15′) gave Demize the lead 1-0.
Crabtree put the Stags back into the match with the ball put between the goalkeepers legs at 26 minutes, fed from the left wing by forward Donald Benamna. The offside flag stayed down this time and the match was tied 1-1.
Head coach Will Montgomery discussed the impact of Demize scoring first. “I thought the first half we played really well. We were dynamic with our possession of the ball. It’s unfortunate we made one mistake in the penalty area and it cost us a goal. When you look at that, it has an effect on the team. But they carried on; they kept going, and we got a goal in the first half off a very gritty play in the PK area.”
Here the score would remain all the way through 120 minutes of action, including a 30 minute extra time. The Rangers had twelve corner kicks in the match, to Demize’s none. And 26 shots were taken by the Rangers, to their opponent’s six. Though possession wasn’t quantified, it was heavily slanted in the Rangers favor, especially during extra time.
Benamna alone had at least five shots on goal in the second half and extra time, but like all other attempts on the night, the ball refused to go in, sailing wide, flying over, hitting posts, or outright being stopped by the keeper. The latter half also saw a dozen yellow cards held up as memories of Saturday and the stakes of the night caused emotions to peak between the two teams.
A contingent of Rangers fans migrated over to the stands behind the net where PKs would be taken. Demize received the first kick and scored. Forward Alex Guadron took the first shot for the Rangers and was blocked. Demize sunk the next two as well, while midfielder Carlos Beltran and defender Ben Watson were also stopped, making PKs 3-0 in favor of Demize and advancing them on to the Heartland Conference final.
“The second half we clearly outplayed them with total stats. We had multiple chances and just couldn’t finish. Their goalkeeper had a good game and made really good saves the second half. But in this situation, the better team didn’t win and it clearly showed,” Montgomery said.
Disappointment is an understated word as the Rangers ended the season with a 4-5-1 record after soaring all the way to the South Region semifinal in 2018. To team captain Nicholas Doyle, it is taking the opportunities given to the team.
“We gave away a sloppy goal that we had to come back from. We did the job to come back but they defended everything. They saved a couple goal line [attempts]. We were super close to taking the lead but it just didn’t open for us,” Doyle said after the match. “Some would say we were unlucky but I feel like great players make their own luck.”
It was a season of expectation; it was a season of firsts. It was a season containing a few matches that should have had different results in favor of the Rangers. Arkansas saw its first US Open Cup match. There were veteran faces for the team and there were new. The team was proud of their fan base, one of the largest in NPSL, who cheered them on from the stadium or watch parties. Players will migrate back to colleges and work; some will return, others will move on. But looking at the view from the four years the Rangers have been in Little Rock, there’s really not much to hang heads over.
“We did well to create our chances but I don’t think we attained the level all of us wanted to. All in all it was there for us but we did not take it with both hands. We will learn from this and move on to next year. It is important for us to regroup and come back stronger,” Doyle reflected.
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.
The Red Watch – Giving to the City and Club
Words: David Barr
Soccer in the United States has a flavor all its own.
The ingredients are of course the style of play and what is happening on the field but just as importantly the atmosphere. At War Memorial Stadium and on the road on most occasions, Little Rock Rangers have a devoted group who loves their city and club – the Red Watch.
“When I was in the process of getting the ball rolling on the club’s creation,” Rangers president Jonathan Wardlow explained. “I talked with the Chattanooga FC owners a few times since I felt our markets were somewhat similar. Tim Kelly told me to just let the supporter group evolve organically and don’t try to fabricate one. I’m so happy I didn’t get involved. I just left those folks alone and have watched them do their thing. It’s has been so cool.”
Initially when Rangers was founded in 2016, another group, The Red Order got things started with the first -year club. Going into year two, the National Premier Soccer League team saw a second supporters group come into existence with the help of a Florida transplant.
“I had been involved in the supporters’ group in Jacksonville, Florida (Jacksonville Armada), prior to moving to Little Rock,” said Red Watch president Ryan Stallings. “In talking to some friends here who had spent some time in the Pacific Northwest, they had really come to love soccer just through the experience of being in the stands with like the Portland Timbers (Major League Soccer) and the Timbers Army. So year two, we decided that we’re going to start a supporters group and spent a lot of time talking to a lot of the supporters groups at the NPSL level particularly the Chattahooligans and Chattanooga FC and then the Northern Guard Supporters with Detroit City FC which are the gold standards, if you will of lower league supporter culture.”
Stallings and group began to research names and more as their goal was to support Rangers, be involved in the community and have a great time. Much like Rangers, there is a Scottish influence. Rangers from the European club deep in tradition Glasgow Rangers and so it only made sense that the new supporters group followed in step taking on the name Red Watch after the Black Watch which is rooted in the Scottish military.
Eventually both groups consolidated into what today is a growing group of 62 members who cheer and chant at home and hit the road in the Heartland Conference all for the love of the Capital City.
“As 2018 approached, we really started to expand on both the numbers but also the kind of goals we wanted to reach and for me, that was doing a lot of community service. I look at Little Rock Rangers as a kind of a gift and in many ways to a city. Jonathan’s vision of just bringing the team here. There’s not a lot of money to be made in lower league soccer, so it’s got to be something you love and something that a lot of people volunteer and put in a lot of time just for love of the game, but also love for their home city.”
Like many soccer supporters’ groups – that community service element is very strong and growing stronger with the Red Watch. From working with Habitat for Humanity on clean up days to food drives and supporting tolerance and equality, the group is using fellowship and soccer to make a difference where they live.
“You start really at supporting the team, supporting the players, helping create a game day atmosphere that people want to come to. But really our long-term goal and long-term mission will be how do you give back to the community and how do you give back in a way that reflects well on the club. That started with Lucie’s Place, which is a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth at risk. There is a program that was started by a lot of the other supporters groups in our league and it has now extended to the American Outlaws (US National Team supporters group) and even to MLS where June is “Soccer For All” month with pledges and donations from all levels of soccer including the Rangers and NPSL for goals scored goes to different shelters and organizations. So, that was really good. We are also partnering with Arkansas Food Bank collecting food at every home match. Going into 2019 the offseason, we have three or four other non-profit organizations that we’re working with right now that will help us be able to expand your community service work into the future.”
The impact of the Red Watch is not lost on the players, staff or owner of Rangers.
“The Red Watch has become a vital supporter’s group,” Rangers manager Will Montgomery said. “Their ability to uplift the players, to keep working harder is awesome. They also have a penchant of distracting the opposing team’s players, which is uniquely part of the game.
The same can be said for Wardlaw who is amazed each match day.
“I can’t express enough how much we appreciate The Red Watch. The players and fans feed off their energy so much and the atmosphere they create only seems to get better.”
From watch parties at Fassler Hall to giving back to the city and the club, the Red Watch is continuing to gain a reputation as one of the premier groups in the NPSL and above.
“A lot of people around NPSL and the country hold a lot of respect for Rangers. We are connected with every other supporters’ group from probably Division Two to USL Championship down and everyone knows about Little Rock Rangers and everyone really admires the ownership group and really admires the program. Regardless of where we are in the season, or our fortunes have gone or how many people are going to be in the stands, there’s always going to be the Red Watch rain or shine singing, cheering. Whether it’s congratulations after a win or encouragement after a loss we will be there.”
If you’d like to join the Red Watch it is easy and free. Simply send a direct message via twitter or Instagram and Ryan and group will take care of the rest.
By Benjamin Peacock
It was rematch night at War Memorial Stadium, with the Little Rock Rangers taking on FC Wichita in the penultimate match of the Heartland Conference season. It was a must win match if the Rangers hoped to hold on to playoff and home advantage hopes, and they rose to the occasion, winning 4-1.
Coming off a 10 day break while many of the other teams created chaos in the conference standings below them, the Rangers came out firing on all cylinders. Shots were plentiful in the first half. Forward Donald Benamna started it off at 3 minutes with a shot that just went wide. Australian native and forward Hayden Tucker and midfielder Trevor Reed both rocketed shots over the net in the 6th and 8th minute, respectively.
Soon after, the Rangers had a throw in that was kicked into the 6-yard box to Benamna. Benamna tapped it to Reed, and Reed sunk the goal but the play was called offside. Scottish native and defenseman Ryan Blair fired one in from just outside the left side box at 14 minutes but it was collected by the Wichita keeper.
Just when it seemed like the Rangers were cursed to keep shooting wide and high, midfielder Daishi Uekuri made a long pass to striker Lance Crabtree in the 19th minute. Ahead of him was open field as Crabtree made the break away and put the Rangers on the board, sinking the ball just past the reach of the goalkeeper.
“From training this week we talked about the center forward staying high more. I stayed up high between the centerbacks like we trained,” explained Crabtree. “Daishi made a really great clearance, looked over his shoulder and saw me standing up there, made the long shot and I ran it down.”
At 34 minutes, Blair made a leaping play for a long ball and fell hard to the turf on his hip. He attempted to re-enter the game after being attended to by the trainer, but quickly waved off. The Rangers played down a man until the 38th with Carlos Beltran subbing on.
The Rangers got a corner kick in the 45th, taken by Uekuri. The ball was centered and headed directly into the goal by Beltran to make it 2-0 Rangers. With momentum fully theirs, the Rangers deemed stoppage time plenty of time to score more and Uekuri did so with a straight banger from about 28 yards out. The Rangers went to the locker room up 3-0.
The second half settled down on shots but the Rangers weren’t done. The Stags had a corner kick at 57 minutes taken by Uekuri. A hectic scrum gave Crabtree the opportunity to sneak it past the Witchita keeper. His second goal of the night and 4-0 Rangers.
Wichita was awarded a penalty kick at 70 minutes but Ranger goalkeeper Walid Birrou saved the chance to keep Wichita off the board. Other substitutes for the Rangers in the second included Sabelo for Tucker (64′), Sebastian Kennedy for Benamna (71′), Alex Guadron for Crabtree (84′), and Robel Dent for Uekuri (88′).
Wichita wouldn’t go down on a clean sheet and scored in the 90th minute, but the Rangers earned the needed win before nearly 1,800 Little Rock fans. The Rangers hold a 4-4-1 record. Head Coach Will Montgomery discussed the preparations in training for this match.
“Wichita has a strong center forward in Franc and he’s hard to defend against so we worked on defending up the middle and also building out the back once we win possession,” he said after the match.
Having taken over second place for now (Tulsa can help the Rangers out by defeating Demize NPSL on Sunday), one last game of the season remains. The Rangers will face Demize NPSL on July 6 at War Memorial Stadium. They previously defeated the Missouri team 2-0 on June 5th.
19′ LR Rangers 1 – FC Wichita 0 (Crabtree)
45′ LR Rangers 2 – FC Wichita 0 (Beltran)
45+’ LR Rangers 3 – FC Wichita 0 (Uekuri)
57′ LR Rangers 4 – FC Wichita 0 (Crabtree)
90′ LR Rangers 4 – FC Wichita 1
by David Barr
Rangers by the numbers …
- -This week’s match versus FC Wichita will be the second meeting between to two clubs in 10-days with Wichita winning last week in Kansas.
- -Top 4 teams in the conference qualify for the post season based on regular season points per game played average.
- -Rangers have not had a multi-goal game since June 5 when they tallied two scores versus Demize NPSL (3 goals combined in last three matches).
- -Donald Benamna leads the Heartland Conference with five goals and is ninth overall in the NPSL South Region.
- -Ben Watson has started in all eight of Rangers contests this season.
Last Week in the Heartland
- Wednesday, June 19
- FC Wichita 2 Little Rock Rangers 1
- Tulsa Athletic 3 Ozarks FC 0
- Saturday, June 22
- Ozarks FC 0 Demize NPSL 0
- Sunday, June 23
- FC Wichita 5 Club Atletico St. Louis 0
This Week in the Heartland
- Wednesday, June 26
- Demize NPSL at Club Atletico St. Louis 7pm
- Saturday, June 29
- Club Atletico St. Louis at Ozarks FC 6pm
- FC Wichita at Little Rock Rangers 7pm
- Sunday, June 30
- Demize NPSL at Tulsa Athletic 2pm
By Benjamin Peacock
From Stryker Sports Complex in Wichita, KS, the Little Rock Rangers met Heartland Conference opponents FC Wichita in their first of back-to-back matches on Wednesday evening. But the Rangers will be coming home without any additional points, dropping the match 1-2.
There were no shortage of shots on goal for either team, including an early point blank attempt by Sabelo, but driving one home eluded the Stags until forward Alex Guadron netted one in the 30th minute for the first goal of the match. Just a few minutes later, Wichita evened it up.
Wichita scored again late in first half stoppage to give them a 2-1 lead. This proved to be the final result, handing them their first win of the season. The Rangers record now stands at 3-4-1 with two matches remaining, the next of which is against Wichita on the Rangers’ home pitch. This moves the team to third place behind Demize NPSL and Tulsa Athletic.
The Rangers will have some time to regroup with a 10-day rest before their June 29th match at War Memorial Stadium.
30′ FC Wichita 0 – Little Rock Rangers 1 (Guadron)
36′ FC Wichita 1 – Little Rock Rangers 1
45+’ FC Wichita 2 – Little Rock Rangers 2