Monday, August 6, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. – As he stood on the Macpherson Stadium field a half hour after the final whistle had blown and his FC London side had claimed the PDL Championship, English forward Jordan Ayris was still on too much of a high to sum up the evening.
“I don’t know, to be honest, not yet,” said the scorer of the winning goal and championship game MVP. “It’s obviously a great feeling, but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
For FC London’s players, coaches and management, though, the overall feeling was one of great satisfaction as they celebrated on the field after capping one of the most remarkable runs in PDL playoff history. After winning only seven games in the regular season, London found form at the perfect moment to take victory against four sides that sat among the top six overall in the PDL this regular season.
Only once since the PDL began had a team finished with only seven regular-season victories and gone on to claim the league championship, with the Ventura County Fusion going 7-2-7 in 2009 before putting in their own remarkable run to the title. For London, and Coach Martin Painter, the run of form his side displayed to claim not only the club’s first title, but also its first postseason victory, was a reinforcement of what the club has tried to build since its inception in 2008.
“In the past three years we’ve had good teams, and maybe haven’t had the breaks, or haven’t peaked at the right time,” Painter said. “This year, we knew what we had to do, and it was a tough road because Thunder Bay was a great team, Michigan was a great team, Seattle was a great team, and Carolina was a fantastic team. Just to be able to peak at the right time and come together in the way we did, it’s fantastic.”
As with their previous victories this postseason, though, London’s path wasn’t an easy one. In front of a packed house that spread beyond the stand and onto the grass berms at either end of the field, the Dynamo went ahead on a perfectly worked goal by Donnie Smith. Knifing through the defense with a perfectly timed run onto a well-weighted pass by Hakan Ilhan, Smith appeared to put his side on its way to a third USL championship, and the first since joining the PDL in 2004.
The versatile Smith has had a big role in that success, with his goal epitomizing his timing and calmness .
“Donnie has some real versatility in his play,” Dynamo coach Marc Nicholls said. “He can play on the left wing, he’s played left back, and as a striker he’s very good off the shoulder of the last defender. I thought the timing of the run for his goal was expert, he’s a real threat and I think he’s got a real future ahead of him.”
London was able to rebound quickly, though, with the group of around 100 supporters that made the trip from Ontario lifting their side vocally soon after they went behind. Painter said that in contrast to their semifinal against the Sounders FC U23, where the side conceded a second goal as heads dropped after going behind, the side was able to keep communicating well, and stay positive.
When Carl Haworth volleyed home the equalizer in the 31st minute, it capped a strong passage of play that provided the perfect response to the Dynamo’s opening goal, and sent the travelling support into massive celebrations. Painter said the support was a welcome boost on the road, and made a difference on the field.
“The franchise and the people who came down from our ownership and management, it’s just fantastic all around to have a little bit of backing,” Painter said. “They were probably outnumbered 10-to-1 or more, but the noise they made and the enthusiasm they showed, it certainly helped the team.”
Carolina’s fans were as vocal, trying to lift their side as they tried to bounce back from Ayris’ goal that gave London the lead in the 76th minute. They almost got the goal they were looking for through Mamadee Nyepon, only for the previously somewhat shaky Reece Richardson to make the save of the night and keep his side ahead. While the majority of the crowd went home disappointed their side couldn’t cap their run with a championship, there was also the belief in the stands and on the sidelines that the Dynamo will remain contenders for seasons to come.
“I think it means we’re close,” Nicholls said, summing up the season as a whole. “When I took this position working with the Dynamo last year, we said that we could win the division, this year the goal was the final four, and year three was to win it, so we’re right where we want to be. Obviously, when it gets to the knockout rounds, it’s anybody’s. There’s an element of luck, and the bounce of the ball can define you, but I think we’re set up hopefully to be perennial contenders.”
In a tough Great Lakes Division, London will be hoping its run, and championship, helps set the club on a similar course. With two players who had been with the club for its first game in the PDL in Haworth and Jovan Ivanovich taking the field on Saturday, and others who have returned, there has been a level of continuity within the club that can be crucial in building a successful team.
“Front to back, left to right, I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” Painter said. “They all worked hard. Tyler [Hemming]’s a big part of that, Jordan was a big part of that, but a lot of other guys like Carl Haworth and Jovan Ivanovich, they’ve been with us since our first year, since our first game, and for those guys I’m incredibly proud as well.”
Ayris hadn’t been as long-standing a member of the team as most of his teammates, joining the club this season after a standout freshman season a Fairfield University. After this summer, though, the native of Bicester, England will almost certainly be back in Ontario next summer.
“You can’t say no when you’ve won a PDL Championship, can you?” Ayris said with a smile, before heading to continue the celebration.