Two trouble spots had presented themselves to St. Louis City2 over its past three MLS Next Pro games: Trouble finishing scoring chances and trouble closing out games. They were able to do both on Saturday.
Getting a goal in each half was an encouraging sign for the offense, while the defense, which had allowed three goals in the final 16 minutes in its past three games, did its job on the other end. City2 came away with a 2-0 win over Houston Dynamo 2 at Korte Stadium at Southern Illinois Edwardsville, a good start to stretch of three games in eight days.
It may have been the most impressive game of the season for City2, coming against a Houston team that started the day atop the Western Conference standings. City2 handcuffed the Dynamo’s offense, limiting their scoring chances, and when they had some, goalie Ian McGrane, making his third consecutive start, made the saves.
“I think we controlled the whole game,” said midfielder Celio Pompeu, who helped set up the first goal and scored the second. “They had like a couple chances, two or three maximum, but we did our job today. We did good in defense and the attack.”
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“That was good,” said City2 coach John Hackworth. “That was a good one, especially against a quality team like that. … We weren’t just trying to eke out something. We had a lot of control of it. Finding that second goal was huge.”
Creating chances had not been a problem for City2, but getting them in the goal was a different matter.
“We were working so much on finishing because that’s been an issue for us the last couple of games,” said Vitor Dias, whose goal in the 28th minute, his third in as many games, got things started. “We are very happy that we were able to finish them tonight.”
“I think we worked a lot on it. It’s basically just practice. We were creating the chances but we were just not being able to finish them. We are definitely getting there. “
It still took them a while. Prior to Dias’ goal, City2 had multiple scoring chances, which they either couldn’t put on net or shot right at the Houston goalie.
“I didn’t want this to be one of those curse games where you have chances and somehow they missed them,” Hackworth said. “(Josh) Dolling had a couple chances early and I’m like, 'OK, one of those has to be a goal,' but credit to our guys for being tough and showing good character and resolve and coming back.”
The scoring started with Dias. Ezra Armstrong, back in the lineup after sitting out last week, started the play by racing forward to steal a Houston pass. The ball went to Pompeu, who played it back to Armstrong, who continued his run and who then crossed to Dias to score from 10 yards.
“I saw a tiny gap to the keeper’s left,” Dias said. “So I just struck it as hard as I could.”
The goal came two minutes after McGrane made a big save on one of Houston’s few chances, stopping a header at close range from Jason Evans. “We talk about critical moments and that was a critical moment for him,” Hackworth said. “To make that save allows us to get one on the other end.”
Pompeu made it 2-0 in the 55th minute on a shot from the top of the box after a quick turnaround from a City2 steal.
“The last games, we weren’t doing good in finishing,” Pompeu said. “My shots were terrible. The thing that I did and the whole team, we just practiced, working on finishing. After practice, staying to work on my finish. It got better, and that’s the result when you work hard. You just gotta work.
“First half, I had two chances with my left foot and didn’t score and I was like, ‘I gotta score, I gotta score, I gotta score.’ When I had the third chance, the ball went into the back of the net. Finally. And I hope next game I keep scoring.”
From there, it was a matter of closing the game out, which has not been a strength for City2, and it was made a bit tougher by Hackworth subbing in some of his younger players in the second half to get some of the team’s workhorses some rest with a game coming up Wednesday in Denver. The defense held and got the shutout, their first since April 29, four games prior.
“We had been talking a lot about shutouts,” Dias said. “It’s been a while since we had one and it feels great for all of us not only for the defense, but for the attacking players to have a shutout.”
“At the beginning of the week,” McGrane said, “we came together to make goals for the rest of the season and that was one of them. So for us to get one tonight, it means everything for us.
“It’s always frustrating when you can’t keep a zero on the scoreboard defensively but when you all come together to make a plan and everyone is collectively able to get behind it, I think that’s what really helped tonight against a really good team.”
City2 captain Josh Yaro played the game with a covering on his left hand. “He picked up a weird injury last week,” Hackworth said, “and we can’t find when in the game he did, but he basically, it’s not a fracture, but it’s one of those tendon tears in the knuckles that he has to wear this funny looking cooking mitt for a while, and it will need some time so you’ll see that for the next couple weeks for sure.” … Armstrong didn’t play in City2’s previous game, and came in as a sub in injury time the game before. “This is about performance and Ezra with the quality that he has has to bring it in training,” Hackworth said. “I’m not saying he wasn’t training well, but he trained much better this week and that’s what we asked of him and he did a good job so he was rewarded with a start and that was a position we needed to improve on. He did a great job for us.” … Hackworth was able to sub in defender Fritz Volmar (16 years old), forwards Karson Gibbs (18) and Nathan Ferguson (16) and midfielder Aaron Heard (15) in the second half.