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Saint Louis FC beats Hartford Athletic 3-2

Saint Louis FC's Russell Cicerone, at right, and Hartford's Logan Budla go for a ball during the game against Hartford Athletic on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, in the first half of the game at World Wide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton. Saint Louis won 3-2. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis FC’s big week couldn’t have gone much better.

With a 1-0 victory over second-place Nashville SC before a crowd of 5,284 on Saturday night at Soccer Park in Fenton, STLFC capped a 3-0 week and further solidified its playoff position in United Soccer League Championship play.

After enduring a midseason 1-8-4 stretch, STLFC is now 9-9-8 overall. Nashville, which entered Saturday on a 7-1-2 streak, fell to 15-7-6.

Russell Cicerone scored the goal in 78th minute. After coming up with a loose ball in the middle of the field, he moved toward the box and made a nice cutback move at the edge of the Nashville penalty area before scoring on a low shot the right corner.

“I thought I could dink the ball to Tyler (Blackwood), but they have some huge centerbacks,” Cicerone said when asked about his fifth goal of the season. “Luckily, the ball came back. I was going to pull the trigger right away, but I cut it back to my left and was able to tuck it away.”

Jake Fenlason posted the shutout.

“Momentum,” STLFC coach Anthony Pulis said when asked about the difference in his team’s recent play. “The guys have obviously performed well. Fantastic performance. Fantastic three points. And I thought it was deserved. Obviously, winning breeds confidence. . . . Tonight, the performance was fantastic. To perform at that level, to show that kind of energy, enthusiasm and intensity and willingness and urgency over the whole game was immense. I’m just so proud of the guys and the effort they put in tonight.”

STLFC played without midfield leader Lewis Hilton, who was injured and sat out the second half of Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over the Ottawa Fury. Starters Kyle Greig and Kadeem Dacres entered just after halftime on Saturday.

“It would’ve been impossible to ask the same players to go and play all three games,” Pulis said. “It was always in our mind to rotate and try to keep players somewhat fresh. We got Kyle and Kadeem on and they gave us some boost. But every one of the players can be proud of the work they put in over the last seven days.

“It’s fantastic, but it’s also important now that we keep it going.”

STLFC started strong. Two minutes in, Caleb Calvert laid off a pass for teammate Masta Kacher, who fired the ball wide to the short side.

Eventually, the visitors settled in and started to knock the ball around the field. But STLFC managed to keep Nashville’s scoring chances to a minimum.

Cicerone made a strong run out the midfield in the 36th minute, drawing a foul at the edge of the Nashville penalty area. On the resulting free kick, Kacher hit a blast into the wall of defenders and on the follow, Collin Fernandez’s shot also was blocked at the Nashville defense.

In the 40th minute, after receiving a pass at the edge of the box from Blackwood, STLFC’s Kacher fired wide to the short side.

The game was scoreless at halftime.

STLFC defender Sean Reynolds didn’t miss by much with a shot in the 65th minute that sailed wide.

In the 75th minute, a pair of STLFC starters-turned-reserves nearly helped the home team get the goal it needed. After Greig blocked a clearing attempt, he laid the ball off to fellow second-half reserve Dacres, who played the ball across the top of the box for Fernandez. But his shot went wide.

After STLFC went up 1-0, it nearly added to its lead when Cicerone’s long pass down the middle was one-timed by Greig and tipped over the bar by Nashville keeper Matt Pickens, a St. Francis Borgia High product who played in college at Meramec Community College and Missouri State University.

In the 90th minute, Dacres forced a diving stop by Pickens on a shot from outside the penalty area.

Hometown keepers

Three of the four goalkeepers in uniform Saturday had local ties.

Getting a rest for STLFC was Tomas Gomez, who starred at Webster Groves High and enjoyed a standout career at Georgetown University. He was a third-round choice of Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew in 2015 but eventually signed with the San Jose Earthquakes. Gomez eventually signed with the USL’s Rochester Rhinos.

Gomez returned home last year and posted seven shutouts for STLFC. He has three shutouts this season.

Nashville SC has a pair of area goalkeepers in veteran Pickens and Connor Sparrow.

Pickens, 37, starred at Borgia, Meramec Community College and Missouri State before being drafted 19th overall by the MLS’ Chicago Fire in 2004. He played 40 games for Chicago before playing in 116 games for the Colorado Rapids. In 2010, Pickens was in goal as the Rapids posted a 2-1 win over FC Dallas to capture the MLS Cup.

Pickens was the first player signed by Nashville before last season. He started 32 matches and posted 14 shutouts (second most in the USL). This season, he’s tied for third in the league with nine clean sheets.

Pickens is also a Nashville assistant coach.

His backup is St. Louisan Connor Sparrow, a St. Louis Scott Gallagher product who starred at Vianney High. The 25-year-old started his college career at University of Missouri Kansas City before transferring and playing three years at Creighton. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 MLS Draft by Real Salt Lake and ended up playing with the USL’s Real Monarchs. He signed with Nashville in the offseason has two shutouts this year.

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