An Upset in the Desert

On paper, it seemed like an easy one to predict. Sporting AZ FC was the runner up in the 2019 UPSL Spring season playoffs. A large portion of their players had just returned from representing the United States in a 6v6 international tournament. Sporting is the class of the Southwest Conference.

No slouch was the opponent, El Paso’s Southwest FC, who finished 3rd in league play last season. But the gap between the two clubs was wide, on paper. The clubs had played twice in the spring season, Sporting won both times. While Southwest had added several new players, it was not a complete roster overhaul, so why would the result be any different?

The match kicked off with Southwest FC applying high pressure with aggression. Sporting’s passing options were cut off quickly every time they touched the ball and early on, Southwest won a set piece in the attacking half, which they quickly converted, putting them up 1-0. It was a punch in the mouth for the conference champ. But it was only the beginning of a rough day for Sporting.

The turning point of the match was in the 18th minute when Sporting’s keeper charged out of the box, making contact with a Southwest player who was shooting. Both players went down and the red card came out. Tom Marchisotto, GM and acting coach disagreed with the call, “I certainly didn’t think it was a red card on our keeper. 50/50 challenge, both players going for the ball, one got there just before. No problem with it being a foul, no problem with it being a yellow, but it’s not a last man situation.” The red card forced massive changes in Sporting AZ FC’s plans for the day and seemed to shake the club up. That isn’t to say that they didn’t respond. Indeed they did with a goal later in the first half that tied up the score 1-1.

But the damage had been done with the early red. Players down the bench began to complain loudly any time there were “missed calls” or perceived injustices. The chatter got so loud and so vulgar that the referee issued a yellow card to one of the players on the bench, Dom Papa. That yellow card would prove even more significant in the second half.

Already down a player, Sporting AZ FC surrendered a second goal early in the second half and coach Marchisotto decided to shake up the on field chemistry by bringing in a veteran defender, the previous yellow-carded Papa. He’s a great defender, well-known in the Southwest Conference for his leadership and aggressive play. However, entering the match with a yellow card, down a man and a goal, he was not in a great position for success. Soon after entering the match, he challenged a Southwest player for a ball and came in high and hard, knocking the opponent to the ground and earning his 2nd yellow and a quick exit from the match.

Now up 2 men, the floodgates opened and Southwest FC was able to push forward. In the last 20 minutes, the El Paso side was able to score 2 more goals, bringing the final score to 4-1. So one team advances and the other exits, just not in the roles that might have been expected. For Southwest FC, the eyes are forward facing to their next opponent, though where it will be is still up in the air. Endy Gonzalez, club GM and coach, isn’t sure who or where they will play next month. “We don’t know yet. We’re in the middle of nowhere, they’ll probably send us to Dallas or California, but we’ll just keep working hard, we’ve been doing that for the last two months.”

For Sporting AZ FC, it’s an early exit from a competition they were expecting to make a deeper run in. How the game might have played out without the early card, no one knows, but it’s clear Coach Marchisotto was still irritated by the way the match was officiated after the final whistle had blown. And it’s hard to blame him. The official was incredibly uneven in his call, handing out two reds, but allowing players to make aggressive and dangerous challenges without issuing a warning. The players on both teams got more and more upset, vocal, and out of control on the field. A stronger, more even hand could have kept the hotter heads in check, without the double reds. But the match is over, an upset is in the books, on to Round 3!

- Dan Vaughn

Lola Vaughn