Real Caribe celebrates winning the LISFL Ryder-Vass U-23 title. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — After failing to reach the Ryder-Vass Under-23 playoffs for the first time last year, Real Caribe HSSA U-23 head coach Huntley Swaby made a pact with his Long Island Soccer Football League team that was dominated by U-18 players.
“We played well, but didn’t get the deserved results, the playoffs,” he said. “We made a pact last year and we were going to come back this year and do it all over again and let’s do it the right way. Not that we did it the wrong way last year. When they came back, you could see they had the extra thing that they wanted to do well.”
Real Caribe capped a memorable summer season by winning the Ryder-Vass championship, recording a 2-1 victory over Doxa S.C. in the final at Mitchel Athletic Complex Sunday.
The team overcame a 1-0 deficit behind goals by Franco Cali and Joe Thomann, the game-winner in the 63rd minute, to secure its seventh Ryder-Vass title since 2001 and first since 2013. Real Caribe, which won the 2012 U.S. Adult Soccer Association national championship and finished as 2013 runners-up, qualified for next year’s Region I tournament.
“It’s awesome,” said Thomann, a center back who is team captain. “In the season, we had our ups and downs, but as a team we came to practice all the time, worked our tails off. We won some games, had some lows, but we always worked hard. It shows that hard work pays off in the end.”
Real Caribe finished second in Flight A - Nassau West with a 5-0-1 record while scoring a league-high 31 goals and surrendering three. In the group stage of the playoffs, the squad defeated Pro-Touch Eagles Under U-23, 9-1, July 8, blanked Oceanside United U-23, 3-0, July 10, and bested Garden City Park SC U-23, 3-1.
The LISFL team beat Rosedale Super Eagles U-23, 4-1, in the Round of 16 on July 19, shut out Dix Hills Elite U-23 in the quarterfinals, 3-0, July 22 and got past Port Jefferson SC Blue U-23, on penalty kicks, 5-3, in the July 24 semifinals.
In a U-23 competition that allows teams to have as many as three overage players apiece, Real Caribe deployed a young team. Most of the players were under 20 years of age on a team that includes players from Adelphi University, New York Institute of Technology, Molloy College, RPI, Iona, SUNY Geneseo and Philadelphia University, among other schools.
“We have been pushing the enveolope because this is a very young group,” Huntley said. “The teams that have players in the age range of 21, 22 always were the dominant teams because they had the experience, strength and all that good stuff. We have only three kids 20 years.”
A late recruit to the team, goalkeeper Jon Rico, the “old man” of the team at 23, has seen the side grow and improve. He said he was impressed with Real Caribe players on “how young they are and how much mentality they have to win and go forward.”
“They want to learn more of the game,” he added. “They want to move forward. They want to go to that pro level and they keep on busting their behinds to get to that level. That what gives them that drive to keep on going forward to win.”
Huntley said he and his staff had coached the players since they were 12-years-old, so familiarity has bred success.
“These boys have come through the ranks with me,” he said, adding that a good chunk of the group finished fourth in the 2017 NPL championships. We’re looking to get better. We have a lot of things we want to achieve over the next three, four years.”
Real Caribe’s latest achievement came Sunday with the U-23, although it was an uphill battle as Doxa struck first on Robert Cabrera’s goal off a free kick in the ninth minute.
“We went down early to a goal we shouldn’t have given up,” Huntley said.
His team didn’t panic, it just wanted to get even.
“You need to have a strong team,” said Thomann, who will enter his sophomore year at Adelphi in the fall. “We’ve been down in games before so this is nothing new. We know we can come back from anything. It was only one goal. We’ve come back from two before. Just keep working hard, keep playing the soccer we’ve always played. One goal is one goal. Anyone can come back from it.”
In the 26th minute, Real Caribe was celebrating as Franco Calio headed in Rashaan Robe’s right-wing cross on the far side of the penalty area for a 1-1 deadlock.
Doxa dominated the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but had nothing to show for its efforts before the LISFL side scored against the run of play in the 63rd minute. Michael Harten drilled a free kick from the left side that a teammate got a head on. Goalkeeper Giuseppe Antonacci punched the ball out and Thomann, standing just outside the six-yard box, slotted it home to the left side for his first goal of the season.
“It was a great ball in,” Thomann said. Cesi [Anthony Cestaro] made a great run, flicked it on goal. It popped right back out to me. It was perfect ball right on top of me. I just did my job and put it into the net.”
The CSL side pushed forward for the equalizer, but could not find the finishing touch, although it made for an exciting, entertaining and dramatic ending for both teams.
“We had most of the possession of the ball,” head coach Paul Grafas said. “We played mostly in their half of the field. We couldn’t put the ball away. At least two penalties weren’t given, clear penalties. Kids got frustrated. That’s the way it is.”
During second-half stoppage time, Doxa had four consecutive corner kicks on which to equalize, taking turns from the left and right corners.
“We had them with their backs against the wall,” Grafas said. “We just couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. They were fighting for their lives. Simple. They know that. They [his team] couldn’t put the ball away. Sometimes the ball doesn’t want to go in.”
Rico had something to do with that, swatting away all four attempts.
“He played unebleievbale today, he played unbelievebaly all season,” Thomann said. “He really helped us out, not just as a shot stopper, but as a leader. He’s always been there for us. Always makes us work hard. He’s been huge this whole season.”
Doxa sent an inswinger in from the left side and Rico knocked the ball away. On the ensuing corner, tipped the ball over the goal line. On the third attempt, he parried the ball away before Doxa’s fourth attempt was cleared out of harm’s way
“It’s nerve wracking,” Thomann said. “Just got to make sure everyone’s locked in, everyone’s on their guy and everyone is aware of the situation. It’s the end of the game. If anything happens, you’ve got to get that ball out and luckily we did.”
As it turned out, defending so many corner kicks was old hat for Rico, who said he and his teammates had to defend as many as 10 in a row at NYIT.
“It was just non-stop and the clock kept on stopping because of the ref. That’s how it works,” he said of college soccer. “But this one was diffirent because these guys were taller than us. There was a lot of pressure on us because you had to come out for the ball and punch it. It was very tough, nerve-warcking, the last save i was very lucky I got it out with my foot. I just kicked it out and wait for time to finish.”
Rico felt it was endless.
“It really did because the ref kept on saying 40 seconds, 40 seconds and just two minutes passed by,” he said. “It was something enedless, but when they cleared it out I know he was going to blow the whistle here.”
During the medal ceremony, one Real Caribe player was so elated that he had earned a gold medal that he said: “This is going to college with me. This is going in my college room.”
Later, there was no Gatorade with which to douse Hartley, so the players improvised with a water bath from several bottles.
“Water will definitely do, definitely,” a smiling Thomann said.
There was a lot for Real Caribe to smile about Sunday.