STAMFORD — Ali Essallamy was a forward growing up, but since joining the Stamford boys soccer team his primary responsibility has been preventing, not scoring, goals.
Essallamy, with the approval of his coach, decided to do a little freelancing late during today’s home game against Norwalk, and his rediscovery of old skills allowed the Black Knights to come away with an important three points.
Essallamy was able to beat the backfield to a touched ball and connected in the 79th minute to give the Black Knights a pivotal 2-1 win. The goal came after the Bears had dominated the second half.
“I have a lot of experience being a striker my whole life, so every time I see my team struggling to get a goal, I just go up,” Essallamy said. “I was asking coach to go up, I went up top and shot it to the right.”
The outcome did a little rearranging of the tightly packed standings as the regular season winds down and teams try to secure conference playoff berths and ideally a high seed and opening home game.
Stamford (9-3) now has 27 points, one behind leaders Ridgefield and Greenwich. The Tigers started the day on top but tied Staples, 0-0, while the Cardinals came away with a 6-0 decision over Wilton.
Black Knights coach Mario Caminiti was not surprised that Essallamy came up with the decisive play.
“The most intelligent players are going to step up,” Caminiti said. “The ones with the motivation become self-critical of themselves, and I think Ali does that. He comes out to play. This is another example of what he wants to do for the good of the team. I trust him a lot.”
Overshadowed by the dramatic finish was the play of Stamford goalkeeper Alex Grabar, who was the star of the game. Grabar turned away constant pressure after the break and made two point-blank saves that allowed the Black Knights to remain in a tie after relinquishing an early 1-0 lead.
“In the second half he made some good saves,” Caminiti said. “That’s what we need. For any team to go forward you need people to step up, and it is different people every game.”
The manner of defeat was crushing for Norwalk coach Chris Laughton, whose team had taken control of play and would have put at least another ball or two into the net if not for Grabar.
“I thought we had a great second half, pinned them back, created some chances and had some momentum,” Laughton said. “It’s just inexcusable. There’s no way you should lose a game in the last 45 seconds. They wanted it more than my guys in the back. My guys in the back need to step up, win that ball and clear it out. Plain and simple. They didn’t do it. We should have come away with more than what we came away with.”
Norwalk (7-3-2) remained in fifth place, pending the outcome of Fairfield Ludlowe’s game against St. Joseph. The Falcons started the night two points behind the Bears, but have played one fewer time.
Stamford took the lead in the 9th minute, when Josh Labkoff chipped a ball to Bogdan Chervak, who had time to settle it and score.
The Black Knights continued to dictate tempo but were unable to create any more chances.
“We had a pretty good first half and we lost the midfield in the second half,” Caminiti said. “You could see we were chasing. They outplayed us a little bit.”
The Bears quickly upped their intensity after retaking the field, and nearly equalized when Grabar punched away a shot he probably could have controlled. He made up for it when he stopped a bullet by Fredy Rosales on the rebound.
Norwalk tied the game in the 56th minute, when Michael Hidalgo, who created constant trouble with attacks from the right wing, finished with a shot on the ground into the far side.
Moments later Hidalgo drove a shot with greater velocity from nearly the same spot and Grabar made the stop.
“I thought we did a much better job on possession,” Laughton said of his team’s play in the second half. “We started winning a lot of those first or second balls. I think that was the key difference. It’s tough to swallow. I thought that was one of our better games in terms of how we played. We just have to get some tougher guys in the back to do their job and finish out the game.”
Stamford was able to regain momentum in the final minutes, and Essallamy said he saw an opportunity.
“I said I’m just going to go up and see what happens,” Essallamy said. “It means a lot against a team like Norwalk that plays good soccer like us.”