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Kitsap Pumas play postseason match in Texas
BREMERTON — A crack-of-dawn flight followed by a three-hour bus ride across the plains of Texas, where 110-degree heat and at least one playoff game await.
The journey, weather and competition figure to heat up a scorcher of a season for the Kitsap Pumas, who continue their quest for a professional soccer championship today in Laredo, Texas.
“Right now we’re most concerned with our travel plans, getting the guys down there,” said Pumas executive director Ben Pecora, who finalized the club’s itinerary Wednesday. “It’s going to be arduous.”
The Pumas are in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League quarterfinals, one of eight teams remaining, after a 2-0 win Saturday over the Seattle Wolves in front of a franchise-record 2,328 fans at Bremerton Memorial Stadium.
Stephen Phillips scored a goal and assisted on another to lead the county’s first professional soccer franchise to its first-ever home playoff victory.
It was the third time in as many tries this season the Pumas defeated the Wolves (10-4-3).
“It feels good, it feels really good,” said Phillips, whose goal in the 14th minute gave the Pumas a 1-0 lead. “You go (into the game) and you might not do anything. It feels good to deal with the pressure and live up to it.”
After forward Kyle Johnson was dragged down near the sideline outside the penalty box, drawing a foul, Phillips was able to get his right foot on the ensuing free kick. He poked the ball off a defender's head, deflecting it into the goal for his team-best eighth score of the season.
The assist to Megson, who entered the game in the 68th minute, was equally impressive. Phillips squeezed a pass around a Seattle defender to a streaking Megson, who put the ball inside the left post past goalkeeper Peter Lechak for his third goal on the season.
Twelve minutes later, he subbed out of the game.
“I wasn't even going to play, they just put me in to change the game up a little bit because I told coach (John Wedge) I’d be good,” said Megson, who has been recovering from a sprained ACL. “I just made my run through so I could get the shot and (Phillips) played a perfect ball, and I just passed it in.”
Pumas keeper Dustyn Brim, who finished the regular season with the league’s second-best goals-allowed average (.615 per game), registered his seventh shutout of the season.
Wolves forward Alex Chursky, who scored three goals in Seattle's 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers U23 in the first round of the playoffs July 23, was held to zero shots on goal, being shadowed much of the game by Pumas defender Taylor Hyde.
“I thought Taylor did a great job with him. We just marked him and kept the ball and played our game,” Phillips said. “It’s definitely always hard to beat a team three times.”
TO TEXAS AND BACK
But today, the road gets hot and rocky.
The Pumas, who won the USL PDL Northwest Division regular season crown, are the highest seeded team remaining in the playoffs. Despite that, the club traveled 2,300 miles south with the prospect of playing two playoff games in extreme heat over a 24-hour span. After the flight to San Antonio — Pecora said the players and staff were put on three separate flights — the team drove 165 miles to Laredo.
A Kitsap bid to host the quarterfinals — there are two quarterfinal sites, Des Moines, Iowa being the other — came up short to Laredo’s $25,000 bid. Laredo, Pecora said, gathered much of the money via donations from the community and local businesses.
That means the Pumas (13-1-3) face the Fusion of Ventura County, Calif. at 3:30 p.m. today at the Texas A & M International University Soccer Complex. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to reach 107 degrees.
“It’ll be a tough game, obviously,” said coach John Wedge. “It’ll be hotter than it is here, and they are used to playing in it and we’re not.”
The Fusion (8-2-7) scored three consecutive goals after falling behind 1-0 to defeat the Hollywood United Hitmen 3-1 Saturday. Ventura finished the regular season third in the USL PDL Southwest Division behind the Hitmen and Los Angeles Legends.
A victory over Ventura would put the Pumas in the semifinals against either the Laredo Heat (8-1-8) or Bradenton Academics (10-2-5). That game would be at 6:15 p.m. Saturday on the same field.
“Our goal is to win the whole thing,” Wedge said. “It’s a dream for many of these players. We just need to take it one step at a time.”
Pecora said the league has requested the Pumas place a bid to host the championship match and “there is a very strong likelihood” the club’s bid will be good enough to bring the match to Kitsap.
The championship match is Aug. 8, although the time had not been released by the league as of Wednesday.
“We’re hoping to win through and bring a championship match here, which would be unprecedented,” Pecora said, adding the club would need financial help from local businesses. “We’re reaching out to those groups right now.”