FAIRFIELD — Trumbull coach Sebe Gangemi and his players thought one of the most dramatic FCIAC boys soccer tournament Final Four games in recent memory, a wide-open battle with Danbury, was thankfully over. As the final seconds ticked off, a joyous celebration years in the making commenced near their bench.
But the view down the sideline was partially obstructed. Eagles goalkeeper Jonathan Campbell had a much better look, and what he saw put him on soccer DEFCON 1.
The Hatters quickly got a throw-in, and Ricardo Rodriguez struck a ball from about 25 yards with both force and amazing accuracy. Campbell leaped into the air and punched it over the crossbar, securing a 3-2 win.
The play was the talk of the night at Fairfield Ludlowe, and likely will continue to be retold for years by this who witnessed it.
“I thought we had it but Richard got it and got off a great shot, and I was lucky enough to get it over the bar,” Campbell said. “I was surprised by that powerful and quality of a shot. I just hit it over. I just hoped I could keep it over the net. This was probably my biggest one.”
Trumbull (14-0-4), the No. 2 seed, will face top-seeded Greenwich, a 2-1 winner over Fairfield Warde in the second semifinal, for the title Thursday night in a rematch between the two teams generally considered the best in the conference. They played to a dramatic 0-0 tie during the regular season, one Cardinals coach Kurt Putnam still describes as the best scoreless game he has ever been involved in.
Both Trumbull and Greenwich were pushed hard to advance. The teams exchanged three goals in the 7th, 8th and 9th minutes, an incredible flurry at a time of the year when conservatism usually kicks in.
Matt Retrepo struck first for the Eagles, Kaike Nascimento answered for No. 3 Danbury (11-3-4) and Jason Weinstein then took a ball on the far right side from Thang Dao and threaded a shot into the far corner for a 2-1 advantage.
Both Campbell and the Hatters’ David Mollenthiel took turns making spectacular saves on uncontested shots. When Dao completed a pass from Chris Lancia in the 35th minute, it seemed like the Eagles had an insurmountable advantage.
But the Eagles want no part of playing on their heels, even with a lead, and continued to press the attack. Dao headed a ball off the crossbar in the 42nd minute.
The aggressive posture also makes you more susceptible in transition, and the Hatters were more sure with their passing in the second half, resulting in a goal by Rodriguez in the 48th minute.
Neither side backed down, literally right to the last second and Campbell’s heroic moment.
“We thought it was over but it wasn’t,” a relieved Gangemi said. “That shot came in and he made a brilliant save. You are just praying and hoping. These are two great teams that really played hard. That was the best semifinal I have seen in a while. We were ahead and they came back, we went up again and they came back.”
The Eagles had not qualified for the league playoffs since 2011, the last time they won the title. Most of their key players are seniors.
“This feels great,” Campbell said. “I can’t wait to be in the finals of the FCIAC and hopefully bring it home. This summer we worked our butts off to get to this position. I’m really proud of it.”
Set pieces were the storyline in the nightcap, and the Cardinals have one of the best to tee them up in Alejandro MacLean. His latest connection came in the 59th minute to break a 1-1 tie with the Mustangs.
“I actually screamed at him to keep it low, which he did,” Putnam said. “He placed that with a lot of pace and a bit of a curl on it. I’m not sure if the goalkeeper fully got his wall set. But the whistle went and that’s the difference with the best players. The best players seize the opportunity and the moment. Some less experienced players would have waited or delayed it one or two seconds.”
Fifth-seeded Warde (11-5-2) played at a high level, especially in the first 20 minutes. Johnny Schuster, no slouch on set pieces himself, masterfully converted an attempt in the 8th minute for a quick 1-0 advantage.
That held up until Sebastian Hernandez answered for Greenwich on a long shot in the 32nd minute.
Warde, which dropped a 3-0 decision to the Cardinals on Sept. 24, went strong to net in the final minutes but was unable to equalize.
“That’s not the same team we played five weeks ago,” Putnam said. “That’s as good a game as we have had to battle through all year. We had to give up a lot of direct stuff, free kicks, some corners and throw-ins and stuff. To come from behind, we haven’t really had to do that this year. Sebastian’s goal really put us a bit at ease. That was one hell of a game that Warde played against us.”