CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Cleveland’s Alan Flores had the ball on the left wing, and as he often did, attacked the touchline. The swift senior sped past his defender, and then danced around another to give himself a chance to cross the ball back into the middle But as luck would have it, his “pass” ended up being more of a shot, and it (might have) ricocheted off a Bradley Central defender on its way into the back of the net. It was that kind of night for the Blue Raiders, who defeated their crosstown rival Bears 4-1.
“Alan is a central player and he’s super creative but also good defensively,” Cleveland coach Miles Christian said. “So without him we wouldn’t be where we are and as successful as we have been.”
“Anytime you play Bradley Central in anything, a lot goes on with emotions and everything,” coach Christian said. “As a coach, I’ve been dealing with it for five years, and I also played in it. So I know there’s a lot of hype.”
Cleveland thoroughly dominated possession in the first half, possibly by an 80-20 margin. They parked their three defenders behind midfield, and committed every other body to attacking. They had several chances to score in the first 15 minutes, with their opening chance happening in the 13th minute.
Cleveland’s striker Jose Cortez got a chance to fire the ball into the bottom left corner, but Bradley’s goalkeeper Skylar Pirkle used his mitts to suffocate the shot. A few seconds later, Cleveland’s playmaking senior Lawson Dale dribbled around to his right to make space, but his shot was just a little too wide and went harmlessly out of bounds. For much of the game, the Bears were happy to concede possession while simultaneously choking off the middle of the field.
Bradley’s freshman keeper was unflappable in the face of relentless attacks. Even as his backline continued to bleed chances and shots, he kept his cool and dove right, left, up, and down to knock away Blue Raider shots. However, he wasn’t superman and Cleveland’s shot-happy style finally paid off in the 23rd minute.
Cleveland’s midfielder Dale dribbled the ball past one defender, through two more, and was ready to make his way past about five more as he made his way through the final third. One of Bradley Central’s defenders finally dispossessed him, but Bennett Smith was in the right place at the best possible time and quickly collected the ball.
He took just one touch before he rocketed the ball to his right and past the keeper to give the Blue Raiders a 1-0 lead. From there, neither team was able to break through again before the halftime whistle. Cleveland tried to get their burly forward Alex Maystruk free on long counters, and to his credit he usually played the ball well when the pass was accurate. But most of the time the ball was either too long, or he was sandwiched by Cleveland’s three backline defenders before he had to give up the ball.
“One thing we encourage is offensive creativity out of our outside backs, so a lot of times we’ll send one guy forward and it looks like we have three centerbacks,” coach Christian said. “In reality it’s one centerback shifting inside alongside two centerbacks holding.”
Cleveland put a stranglehold on the game in the second half, scoring twice in the next 20 minutes to create an insurmountable 3-0 lead. Dale showed he could finish under pressure when he stepped up to take a penalty in the 49th minute. He took a deep breath and pocketed the shot into the bottom left corner, far out of Pirkle’s reach.
Next came Flores’ miracle goal, and the rout was officially on. Bradley Central did well to get on the scoreboard with 12 minutes left to play, when the Blue Raiders carelessly lost the ball in their own third and gave their rivals an easy score.
“It was just a simple error,” coach Christian said. “We gave the ball away in a dangerous area, and the kid finished it. Props to that kid for working hard, being in the right spot and finishing it.”
However, Bradley-Central’s optimism and dreams of an epic comeback were dashed two minutes later, when one of their own defenders headed a goal into his own net. This provided the Blue Raiders with their fourth and final score of the game, and another win over Bradley Central.
“Bradley did a great job of bringing that energy, but fortunately for us we finished when it mattered,” coach Christian said.
(Email Joseph Dycus at Joseph.A.Dycus@gmail.com ).