TRUMBULL — With memorable regular-season meetings and successive battles in the FCIAC championship game, Greenwich-Trumbull is currently the biggest boys soccer rivalry in the league.
Tonight’s renewal was no different, a full-throttle match ultimately decided by the Cardinals’ defense, which allowed Chris Cruz’s goal in the 12th minute to hold up for a 1-0 road win.
“Any time we come up against a team with this type of quality we come in a lot more focused and we just grind it out as much as we could,” said Ben Rifkin, the leader of the Cardinals’ back line. “We just wanted to remind them of the way we played in the final. It’s nasty, it’s not very pretty but it got the job done.”
The game was amazingly similar to the last meeting just over 10 months ago, when Greenwich scored in the 10th minute and held on for a 1-0 win.
That was a source of frustration for the Eagles (6-1-2), who suffered their first loss and were without head coach Sebe Gangemi, who is battling leukemia and was in the hospital for treatment.
“The key to the game for me was the start, and it has been a trend the last couple of seasons when we’ve played these guys,” said Sil Vitiello, the Eagles’ long-time assistant. “We don’t match their intensity. Even the FCIAC final last year. You give up an early goal. Now you’re put in the position to chase the ball. You’re fighting that battle within to maintain your composure but you want to equalize as soon as you can. It became a mental thing for us the first 20 minutes and then I thought we grew into the first half. We started creating.”
Cruz’s goal came after a throw-in, when he attacked a clearing ball and scored inside the left post.
Greenwich continued to press the attack, but the few opportunities often landed high of the crossbar.
The Eagles controlled play after the break, creating chances, having them thwarted and resetting.
Greenwich goaltender Jimmy Johnson made several big saves and was aided by the wall protecting him. During one sequence, Johnson left his line to deflect a shot and defender Max Pisacreta went to the air to clear the rebound.
“Even though we aren’t the biggest team our heart got us to a lot of those balls and a lot of those second balls,” Rifkin said. “It’s not really something you can practice.”
The coaches were locked in a chess match, with Vitiello bringing up a player and trying to get Jason Weinstein, the Eagles’ career scoring leader, free in the middle of the field. Greenwich coach Kurt Putnam countered by going to a 4-5-1.
“They did a good job of bringing their defenders into the game and we were chasing the ball a lot more because we were giving up a lot of real estate up front,” Putnam said. “We did a job of keeping them to zero goals.”
Thomas Streiff excelled in containing Weinstein, who never had the chance to turn on the ball.
“They’re really great, great attackers,” Rifkin said. “At times we can try to play them skill for skill. Then there are times in this league that you have to work really hard to get the job done. Credit to them, they made us work really hard as well. I think today we were just a step ahead.”
In their most difficult week of the season, the Cardinals also came away with a win over Staples and a draw against Stamford. They were supposed to play another contender, Norwalk, on Tuesday but that game was rained out.
“It was a game of two halves,” Putnam said. “We probably had the edge in the first half and they probably had more of the edge in the second half. I think it probably evened itself out in the end. I thought our midfield was fantastic today. They covered so much ground.”
After a slow start, Greenwich (5-1-3) has five wins and a tie in the last six games.
Vitiello came away disappointed but also buoyed by the long-term implications.
“I do feel better about our team tonight even though we lost than I did 24 hours ago,” Vitiello said. “Because I know this is a team we have to go through if we want to be there in the end. And if there was any doubt we can compete with them now I don’t think there is.”