The task at hand is clear from Reading United. Defeat the Central Jersey Spartans on Saturday night and earn a sixth consecutive trip to the Premier Development League postseason and the right to host a divisional play-off match at Exeter’s Don Thomas Stadium.
The Philadelphia Union’s PDL affiliate’s regular season has reached it’s climax. Head Coach Brendan Burke has his team poised to once again play for the league championship. Burke and Associate Head Coach Ged Quinn have guided the club through a season that started off brilliantly before plateauing with a series of three consecutive draws versus playoff rivals the Jersey Express and the Baltimore Bohemians. The euphoria of a short handed, rain soaked victory over the Long Island Rough Riders was short lived when United lost for the first time in league play this season against their arch-rivals, Ocean City.
Reading United 4–0 Long Island Rough Riders
United entered their final regular season home game against the Rough Riders seeking to shake off the disappointment of three straight draws against playoff contenders. With Burke at PPL Park for the Union’s match against Chivas USA, Quinn took charge of Reading.
Quinn started a strong side, featuring Ben Sweat, the highly touted left back from the University of South Florida. It was Sweat’s first match with the club since departing on a European training tour and his night ended early when he aggravated an injury that he sustained while abroad.
New captain Damion Lowe also had his night cut short late in the first half following a dubious red card. The match official sent the big defender off, claiming that Lowe had deliberately struck an opponent in the face. Replays showed the contact to be incidental.
With the man advantage, Long Island came out of their defensive shell and went forward looking for the win. The extra space proved advantageous for United, whose quick passing game began to cut open the suddenly exposed Long Island defense. Kadeem Dacres opened the scoring in the 67th minute following a lovely cross-field pass from by right back Wes Charpie. Mario Pinto netted eight minutes later, capitalizing a Rough Riders’ defensive error. Manolo Sanchez struck a long range effort in the 85th minute before turning provider on Charpie’s 89th minute goal.
The win gave United a much needed boost of confidence heading into their massive showdown with Ocean City.
Ocean City Nor’Easters 2–1 Reading United
United headed to the Jersey shore knowing a win against the front-running Nor’Easters would put the club in prime position to capture it’s first Mid-Atlantic Division title since 2010.
Coming on the heels of a rain delayed match only two days earlier, the contest was played on a Carey Stadium natural pitch that Head Coach Burke described as “a cow pasture.” United held a slight advantage in possession and chances in the early going, but struggled to find the rhythm of their quick tempo passing game on the pockmarked, uneven field. Reading midfielder Dante Marini was very active, creating opportunities for forwards Darius Madison and Kadeem Dacres.
Ocean City, known for their quick strike counter-attack, hit for their first goal very much against the run of play in the 18th minute. Gathering a long ball out of the back, Frank Tweneboa sent Dwayne Reid in on goal. The Ocean City forward got around the injury-slowed Ben Sweat and beat Reading goalkeeper Alex Bono with a pinpoint strike to the far post.
Reid netted his brace in the 24th minute, slamming home a rebound after Bono parried away Shawn McLaws initial shot.
United were handed an opportunity to seize control of the match in the 62nd minute when goalscorer Reid was sent off following an altercation on the far sideline. One of Ocean City’s assistant coaches also got his marching orders following his very vocal criticism of the match official.
With United pressing to get back into the match, Ocean City dropped numbers behind the ball. Nor’Easters keeper Michael O’Keefe made several clutch saves to keep Ocean City’s advantage at two. Through ninety minutes of regular time, Untied were unable to breach the Ocean City defense.
Reading were given hope when the referee signaled for eight minutes of stoppage time following the drama and theatrics of the second half. Jordan Vale finally scored for United in the 94th minute, powering home a header off a superb Jason Plumhoff free kick. The goal lifted United and they nearly found a last gasp equalizer when Mario Pinto found just enough space at the far post to toe poke a shot toward goal that O’Keefe scrambled to cover inches from the goal line.
The final whistle ended United’s unbeaten run in league play at twelve matches and handed the Nor’Easters their second consecutive Mid-Atlantic Division title.
Preview: Central Jersey Spartans (2–11–0) vs. Reading United (7–1–5)
United will have a full week of rest prior to heading off to face the Spartans. Quinn will again be at the Reading helm with Brendan Burke at PPL Park as the Union face Portland.
With a home playoff date well within reach, United must shake off the disappointment of their loss at Ocean City and focus on a Central Jersey side that has managed just two victories all season. A setback against the Spartans could mean the end of United’s playoff hopes in the hotly contested PDL Mid-Atlantic Division.
Captain Damion Lowe will be available for selection after serving a red card suspension that saw him miss the Ocean City match.
The Central Jersey Spartans feature Union super-sub Antoine Hoppenot’s younger brother, Maxime Hoppenot.
Players to Watch
Damion Lowe: Reading’s newest captain has earned the praise of Head Coach Brendan Burke for his outstanding play in 2013. Burke has compared Lowe’s play to that of FC Dallas’ center back Matt Hedges, who spent two summers in Reading. The Jamaican U-20 center back combines size and athleticism with a very high soccer IQ.
Darius Madison: The Union academy product’s maturation over the course of the PDL season has been something to watch. A rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, Madison is a high-motor player that creates mismatches with his speed as he runs at defenders. Early in the season, Madison could often be found trying to do too much in the final third of the field with the speedy forward often breaking out a flashy move and yielding possession when an easy pass to an available teammate was the better option. As the season has progressed, Madison has become more aware of his teammates and is a much more dangerous presence.
Jason Plumhoff: The La Salle midfielder has been a surprising offensive force for United. Many of Plumhoff’s team-leading eight assists have come from his excellent service in dead ball situations.