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.