WESTPORT — Jon Bradley wore a look of satisfaction as the sun was setting behind the venerable hill at Albie Loeffler Field on Thursday afternoon. The Darien boys soccer team had just scored an equalizing goal with five seconds remaining to come away with a 2-2 tie that felt more like a win against Staples, which entered the day tied for the best record in the FCIAC.
Bradley could afford himself the opportunity to enjoy a nice postgame meal, and perhaps it was a good idea. Because Bradley knows, this season, more than any other in recent memory, complacency is a detrimental quality.
In a statement that best pinpoints this FCIAC season just past the midway point, Bradley said, “The grind with this is you have to do it again next week. The league is so competitive.”
Nine teams started the day with winning records, seven within four points of each other. Darien had the seventh-best record despite just one loss, largely because of the four draws it would add to. And as the two teams demonstrated on Thursday, they could very well play a seven-game series and end up even in points.
And points are an important currency, which is why Staples coach Dan Woog’s postgame reaction was at the other end of the spectrum from Bradley’s.
“We’ve got a good rivalry with Darien right now,” Woog said. “Jon’s done a fantastic job with them. Games come down to the wire. You have to play 80 minutes. You need to manage the game well at the end and we didn’t.”
Thursday’s game was played with championship-level intensity, not surprising because that is usually the case when the league’s elite meet. Then there was the cause of payback for the Wreckers (6-1-3), who saw their season ended a year ago by the Blue Wave in the state quarterfinals.
“That was huge motivation,” Woog admitted. “It was three points in the bank that we pissed away. That’s why I’m mad and that’s why every single player is mad. Because they know they let it slip away.”
Staples twice took leads and Darien answered each time. Jack Zeldes, back from injury, finished a ball in the box by Daniel Perez Elorza in front in the 29th minute for Staples. The score stayed that way until the 64th minute, when Tore Eriksen delivered a pretty through ball and Sean Gallagher one-timed it.
Play got chippy in the second half, with players having to be separated on two occasions. The Wreckers’ Aidan Wisher was pulled down in the box in the 72nd minute. Graham Gudis, who says he closes his eyes and imagines a state-championship setting before every penalty kick, placed one in the far right corner for a 2-1 advantage. Darien put all 11 players up front in the final minute, Staples could have done a better job letting more precious seconds expire, and Sam Pfrommer scored off a scramble for the tie.
“I felt like it was a defeat,” said Gudis, the Wreckers’ incisive and skilled midfielder. “They beat us last year and ended our season, and the last six months, since the schedule was released, that game was circled on the calendar. We wanted revenge and hope we see them again.”
Asked if the aggression in play was fueled more by competitiveness or combativeness, Gudis was honest. “A combination of both. I’d say both teams got into it. We had some kids who wouldn’t shut their mouths and they had some kids who wouldn’t shut their mouths. It makes the environment a lot more intense than usual. There are points it is good for the game and points it is bad for the game.”
With the season past the midway point, there is no clear-cut favorite, and seedings will likely be of little import because none of the eight teams that qualify for the tournament will be an E-Z lane into the semifinals. Ridgefield and Trumbull are currently tied for the final spot, and Trumbull already has wins over Staples and Danbury, while the Tigers have been competitive with everyone and are now playing their best soccer.
As Bradley so aptly put it, the grind continues.