It all came down to this. Flower City Union’s had a season of the lowest lows, and the highest highs. While the team has played very well at times, no one could have predicted the upsets that would lead them to the 2023 NISA Championship. Michigan Stars haven’t been their worst foe this season. FCU had lost to them twice, but both times were because of a total of 4 penalty shots that were awarded to Michigan. As long as FCU could avoid giving up more of these, the championship was certainly not out of their reach. This was actually referred to in the pre-match press conference the prior day when coach Jordan Sullivan was asked what they needed to do differently to avoid giving up penalty kicks. With a laugh, he jokingly answered with a straightforward response, “Don’t commit any fouls inside the box… keep your hands down when you’re blocking shots, and be disciplined.”
And disciplined they were. The first half was not the most exciting game of soccer that we have ever seen. The first worrying moment for FCU came in the 10th minute, when forward Luke Ferreira went down with a head injury, however after the trainer evaluated him, it appeared he was fine. He came back to get a yellow card for a foul he made only 4 minutes later. The 18th minute finally saw the first chance for either team, with Logan Lee heading a ball out behind the FCU goal for a corner kick. Michigan had back-to-back corner kicks, but neither came to even a shot on goal. The league’s second-leading scorer Leon Maric tried to make his mark on the game soon after by attempting to get behind the defense, but all night FCU defenders Mumbi Kwesele and Kyle Nelson were great at rushing back to either steal the ball or cut off the angle so that Michigan’s plays were rarely dangerous along the right hand side. The 24th minute probably saw the best chance of the entire half, when a Michigan free kick from 35 yards out dropped to an open player behind the defense, but it was just too far and went out safely behind FCU’s goal.
The final kick of the half was FCU’s best of the match so far, with Alioune Diakhate putting a shot a couple of feet over the crossbar. The only shot on target for FCU came in the 41st minute, but Ferreira wasn’t able to firmly connect, and it very slowly made its way into the keeper’s arms. Michigan did not get their first shot on target until stoppage time, from far outside having any actual chance and bouncing into Michael Mejia’s awaiting arms. It was a fairly even half, with the possession being nearly equal, but a slight advantage to Michigan in chances. Neither team really made a mark or looked more dangerous.
All night, Michigan keeper Tatenda Mkuruva had been coming really far out of his net to take balls, so it seemed that if Flower City Union were to get a goal this game, it was going to come from exploiting this. Late in the game, Diakhate tried just this from midfield, but Mkuruva was able to scramble back in time. However, the goal by Matt Bolduc in the 52nd minute was not at all due to this. A long pass from Bolduc to Diakhate saw FCU with a 3 on 5, and as Diakhate had the ball and pulled the defenders to the sideline, Bolduc got himself in the middle of the goal and put it through the defender’s legs and past the dive of the Michigan keeper. The ball trickled in so incredibly slowly.
These players have really grown as a team. With over 40 minutes still to go, they were going to have their work cut out for them. After their goal, instead of a quick celebration, Josue Cartagena (who had a great game) made sure to keep everyone together for a quick huddle. When I asked the team captain Kwesele what was said I was told “One of the great things about our team is that we support one another… Other players step up too which has been especially huge in this playoff run. When I did speak in that huddle after the goal, I told the boys to be calm and keep pushing.” FCU’s success this year has come from this teamwork. Watching them from preseason through every match of the year, they really grew from a bunch of people wearing the same jersey, into a group of friends and a team. The fact that it wasn’t the captain leading a talk to keep their heads in the game shows how much they’ve grown together through 2023.
When talking to a player before the match, I was told that he “just hope[d] the referee [didn’t] make it about him.” Some of the calls that the referee made on the night worried me that this would be happening. There were constant stoppages for very soft calls and calls that were kinda baffling as to why they were made. Thankfully these calls were all pretty inconsequential and did not lead to a penalty shot or anything negatively affecting either team. The closest the referee came to really impacting the game was giving Luke Ferreira a second yellow card, which even he was baffled about. From what I gathered being right nearby when Luke was subbed off he angrily kicked a water bottle, but it was still on the turf, so he was judged to not have been totally off the pitch. It was a strange call, but FCU was able to play the entire game with 11 men. I have rarely seen a player so angry as when Ferreira was subbed off, and no I’m not commenting as if this is a bad thing. These guys play with such passion, that he wanted to be out there the entire time, and it really shows their commitment to this championship. This season was a team effort, so I feel the need to mention all the other players on this night that led to their win and I haven’t so far: Noah Cavanaugh, Stephen Elias, Angelo Calfo, Logan Lee, and Malik Stewart.
After Bolduc’s goal, Michigan was the team that really came out the strongest. FCU’s defense though did its job and kept the clean sheet. There were multiple nervy times, but they did what had to be done to bring home the championship. It’s not worth recounting every shot and missed chance for Michigan, because it was Flower City Union’s night. In the pre-match press conference, Coach Sullivan had said “All this has led to this moment, and we’ve learned from our mistakes.” That they did. They were not outplayed by the second-place team, and they completed the upset of all 3 top seeds. They also did not give up a penalty kick when they had given up 4 in the previous two games and had never beaten Michigan in 6 prior meetings.
My biggest real disappointment with this team is that lower-division United States soccer teams will never remain together. Teams change constantly, and these guys will never get to play together again in front of a home crowd. There will be no victory lap and closure for Flower City Union fans, and that’s sad for both the fans and the team, who celebrated in front of a small minority of away supporters. I’ve been following FCU since before this season started. I was at their first game, in Maryland, where I first met Coach Sullivan in the hotel parking lot. Going out onto the pitch before this final, he said to me “Remember what I told you in that Maryland parking lot? I told you we were going to make the playoffs, and we were going to do good things.” I’m not sure I 100% believed that at the time. I never believed they’d make it past the first round of the playoffs, but the coaching staff and the team proved themselves. I’m going to give the last word once more to the team captain, Mumbi Kwesele: “We’re so proud to represent Rochester. We’re so proud to represent Flower City Union.” The feeling is mutual.