Rockford FC began its 2022 Midwest Premier League with a serious challenge, facing RWB Adria on Wednesday. Adria were the runners up in the West Conference in 2021 and won their first two matches of the 2022 season against Cedar Rapids Inferno and Edgewater Castle in blowout fashion: both 4-0. It's safe to say the Croatian club is already one of the favorites for the conference title, and after Adria's 6-0 win in Rockford last year, the RFC boys were itching for payback.
Rockford's starting lineup for the match featured ten returning players, with new signing Jose (Paco) Gutierrez finishing the eleven. With that familiarity and two friendly games under their belts, the Gears held off some early pressure in the early minutes. The seemingly dominant Croatian team controlled possession. It was Rockford, though, who showed the most promising chances. Long counterattacking balls from center-back Christian Bitangalo helped relieve the defense and set up early opportunities for attackers Poe Reh and Gutierrez. Reh's strikes unfortunately went wide, and two acrobatic saves from Adria's goalkeeper kept Paco's name off the score sheet.
Midway through the first half, Adria pushed forward to earn multiple corners in quick succession. The last of these proved the opening salvo, as an Adria player slipped to the near post for a header that left the Rockford defense shaking their heads. The goal only increased the intensity in a match already full of choppy tackles and trash talking. The Croatians took advantage of this, sending a free kick quickly forward while the Rockford players lingered in discussions with the referee. The middle of the penalty area was wide open - Adria didn't miss the chance. Their floating cross from the left found the head of an unmarked striker before ending up in the back of the net with just seconds left in the half.
Coach Brett Suhayda gathered the RFC boys for a team talk emphasizing to points: Adria's weakness down the right flank and focus. Both Efren Gomez and Erik Manriquez had consistently found space down the right wing, but so far, Rockford had failed to capitalize on those pushes into the final third. Suhayda urged the team to play until the whistle, not waiting on the referee to make the call. The second goal especially had come from a lack of focus and the first lack of communication. If the team could keep together mentally, it was far from over. Goalkeeper Carson Davenport also stepped in for Dennis Luis-Aragon as an attempt to give both keepers much needed game time early in the season.
Unfortunately, the second half started in jarring fashion. After a few long balls from both teams, defensive midfielder Amrani (Zid) Amani took a tackle from behind, resulting in him having to be carried off the field with what appeared to be a knee ligament injury. Striker Alberto (Beto) Martinez de Anda replaced him, pushing Gomez back into the midfield and Gutierrez into Amani's more defensive role.
Tension ran high throughout the second half, with both teams finding some chances early. It was Adria, though, who seemed destined for another goal. At least two through-balls found their strikers behind the Rockford line, but Davenport made a multitude of fine saves in the half to prevent any more Croatian goals. This early pressure faded later in the half. Rockford began holding more possession, sending balls down the right to sub Martinez de Anda and earning three corners in a row. Despite this, and multiple other half-chances, Rockford just couldn't find the back of the net. The second half finished scoreless.
Despite the loss, coach Suhayda took some positives from the game. His team played well against what may be the best club in the conference. With the number of chances Rockford created during the game as well, goals have to come eventually. It was obvious the Gears played far better than last year, and the team hopes to build on this performance as they head into MWPL match number two at FC Diablos on Saturday at 7 pm.
Join Rockford FC for their home games of MWPL season at Auburn High School: www.RockfordFC.com/tickets