Set Pieces: Playoff Qualifying Supersedes Positioning In Season Of Equals

Greenwich and Staples are two of 12 teams in pursuit of FCIAC Tournament berths. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Just two weeks ago, Trumbull boys soccer coach Sebby Gangemi would have gone into tonight’s game against Wilton with slightly more confidence. The Warriors were 0-3-1 and looking like a side that could be taken down with a hearty effort.

But a lot can happen in a fortnight, more so this fall than in any FCIAC boys soccer season in recent memory. The Warriors are 4-1-1 since, and that loss was by one goal to Ridgefield. They are in the middle of the playoff race.

That is true of just about the entire league. The standings this fall have resembled a row of elevators, with teams going up and down, often at the same time. Usually, as the regular season reaches the final two weeks, a few sides have emerged as possible favorites.

This year? Ridgefield may be the team to beat, at least in the eyes of other coaches, but it is a tenuous hold. The temptation was to call the Tigers overrated after consecutive losses dropped them to 1-2. They have since won nine straight games.

Almost every top team has hit a two-game slide that downgraded its status, only to have a strong rebound. Greenwich, picked No. 1 in the coaches’ preseason poll, suffered 1-0 losses to Ridgefield and Staples. It then defeated Stamford, Norwalk and Trumbull — all schools with realistic championship hopes.

“It has definitely been an interesting year so far,” said Ludlowe coach Kevin O’Hara, whose team is the only one left with just one loss, though it has played three draws. “Usually at this time of the season you see two or three teams are clearly starting to separate themselves from the rest of the league.”

Greenwich goalkeeper Jimmy Johnson makes a saves against Staples earlier this season. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

After the Staples loss, Greenwich coach Kurt Putnam said this year was less about trying to get one of the top four seeds and a first-round home game and more about just qualifying. And a low seed will have a better chance than ever of winning the title. Or at least it would be less surprising.

“Usually in the past you are looking at the one, two or three seed and you say you are going to play the six, seven or eight, you get the home field, I’ll be OK playing that team, but I don’t see that this year,” O’Hara said. “You get that home field, five, six, seven or eight are going to be a challenge. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the top four seeds get upset this year.”

As my Twitter feed just affirmed, there really is no such thing as an easy win this year. As I type these words, Darien just came away with a 1-0 decision at Staples. The Wreckers came in with a record of 6-3-2 and the fifth-most points in the league (and a victory away from being one point out of a tie for first). Darien was 0-8-2.

Then again, the Blue Wave lost to Stamford on a late goal, and the Black Knights are arguably the biggest surprise so far this year. Overlooked for the second straight preseason, the Black Knights started the day tied with Ridgefield for the most points.

Then again, the Black Knights suffered a 4-3 loss this afternoon to Fairfield Warde, now the winner of four straight.

“I find it’s a grind every game,” Gangemi said. “You don’t know who is going to show up. Who gets the breaks for that one day. There’s a lot of parity between all the teams.”

Gangemi then offered the most accurate quote of the season: “Anybody can beat anybody at any time on any day. It’s crazy.”

Following Saturday’s game against Stamford, the Wreckers now have lost two straight 1-0 decisions. Write them off? Some were probably doing so just over two weeks ago following consecutive losses to Trumbull and Bridgeport Central. They were followed by shutout wins over Greenwich and Norwalk that started a four-game winning streak.

The day started with 12 teams harboring realistic chances of earning one of the eight playoff spots. And with so many teams in pursuit, that just means more head to head meetings as they try to accumulate precious points.

Including tonight, five of the Eagles’ final six games are against opponents still in the race. Staples has Ridgefield and Ludlowe on deck. Wilton still must play Greenwich, Danbury, Stamford and Ludlowe.

“It’s not trying to get in and being a top four team, it’s trying to get in this year and lets roll the dice,” O’Hara said. “I think all eight teams this year are going to have a chance of winning it. Can I sit here and say Ridgefield and Stamford are starting to stand out a little bit?  They are two of the tougher teams. I am not looking forward to playing Greenwich, Staples or anyone in the first round either. They are going to be tough teams.”

Looking ahead, what is always a thrilling tournament will be even more compelling this year. And several of the entrants might not have their tickets punched until the last day of the season.

“We don’t know where we stand so it’s more challenging, but it’s a little more fun and better,” Gangemi said. “It is exciting every game. Whoever catches the break wins the game. That’s exactly the way it works out.”

 

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