The second Midwest Premier League match of Rockford FC's opening week was another on the road, as the team headed down I-39 to Bloomington, where we faced off against FC Diablos. This was the Diablos' first match of the season, and coming off a strong performance (despite the loss) against RWB Adria, the Gears were eager for the win.
Coach Brett Suhayda switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 for the match with multiple changes to the lineup. Carson Davenport took over in goal as Dah Reh returned earlier than expected from surgery, David Rebollar joined the starting 11 after missing Wednesday, and young former Auburn Knight Waleed (Luffy) Shaibi lined up as the center striker. Everyone was interested to see what Shaibi could do after his explosive high school career, and it didn't take long for him to generate excitement - and controversy.
Just three minutes into the match, Shaibi broke down the left side from a long counter attack, giving him a one-on-one with the Diablos goalkeeper. He slotted it into the right side of the net, and Rockford began to celebrate until the referee overturned the goal. The claim was that the ball had never gone in the net. It had, but the metal bar at the back of the net had sent the ball out quickly, perhaps making it appear to the referee it had gone off the post. Testimonies from players and video evidence say otherwise, but the game went on with no score.
Even beyond that strike, Rockford pushed consistently into Diablos territory in the opening minutes. The team seemed far more organized from the get-go than in previous matches, falling into more of a rhythm after two friendlies and the first competitive match. All that was missing at crucial moments was cleaner passing. The occasional errant pass allowed the Diablos to break the pressure applied, but that pressure soon paid off, as a long ball by Davenport resulted in a header that set winger Poe Reh free down the left. The keeper came out, leaving Reh free to send the ball into the net. This time, there was no question about the goal, and RFC went up 1-0, in complete control.
That control continued for much of the half, with FC Diablos having little possession and almost no chances. It was surprising, then, to see the Diablos score against the run of play near the end of the first 45 minutes. The RFC defense struggled to deal with a few crosses into the box, and a long shot by the home team flew past Davenport in what was only their first or second real chance. Rockford had far more, but it was what hit the back of the net (or at least what the ref saw hit the back of the net) that counted. We went into half time tied, 1-1.
The second half looked to be a similar story to the first. Rockford dominated possession, not just in the defending third but on the attack too. More chances were had, but the attackers just couldn't find the crucial ball. That is, until more controversy arose when Efren Gomez's strike hit the top of the post and bounced down, seemingly into the goal, before rebounding out. Rockford once again appealed for a goal, but the referee waved it off. The FC Diablos cameraman was looking at the opposite end of the field, so there is no tape to confirm or deny whether the ball went in or not. The game remain tied.
In another surprise, it wasn't Rockford who scored the third goal of the game. Despite shot after shot and a multitude of attacking possession, they were hit on the counter by a long ball by the FC Diablos goalkeeper. The defense was caught off guard by the kick, and the home team took advantage and the lead. In the minutes afterward, RFC put on constant pressure but couldn't find the net again. The final whistle blew with a 2-1 final score for Diablos. In truth, though, we'll never know what the real score should've been with the controversy around (apparent) goals being waved off.
This loss was a bitter pill to swallow for the entire club. From controversy to mental mistakes resulting in goals against the run of play, RFC's first MWPL win of the season slipped away in frustrating fashion. We could focus on the ref, but instead, we look ahead with lessons on what can be improved. Rockford controlled the game but struggled to find the final strike when needed, missing passes that gave the Diablos an escape, and disorganization at the back gave up two goals that should've never happened.
That being said, this match was a show of what RFC is capable of. Domination on the ball and in the attacking third should have led to a win, and the team can take heart in knowing what they can do. We were the better club today. Maybe we had more strikes in the net. Maybe we didn't. Nothing can change the ref's decisions now, but we play on as we look forward to our home opener against Berber City FC. The first win will come. And when it does, we'll know we fought tooth and nail for it.
Join Rockford FC for their home games of MWPL season at Auburn High School: www.RockfordFC.com/tickets