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NPSL title win “more about belief” than experience for FC Motown

A national soccer trophy came to the Tri State Area over the weekend

FC Motown lifts the NPSL championship trophy on Saturday night in Montclair.
Photo by Miguel Gonzalez

FC Motown won the 2022 National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) championship, its first national title since being founded in 2012, in the only way it knew how on Saturday night. An early 2-0 lead was nullified just before halftime and completely lost a few minutes after the break. Seattle, Washington side Crossfire Redmond pushed the Morristown, New Jersey semi-pros to the brink at MSU Soccer Park in Montclair.

But this isn’t anything new for Motown this year. Across multiple leagues, cups, and even life itself the team has battled back to find results. Even goalkeeper David Greczek couldn’t help but express how different his club had responded when on the ropes all year.

“So in past history, for Motown in big games that was our achilles heel when it came to finals or semifinals,” the former Greenville Triumph player said. “We wouldn’t be able to finish out the game in our favor. But this year, this team just did their job till the end. We never gave up. Yeah you saw frustration but the fact that the last several games that we played and that we’ve been able to pull wins in the last minute just shows that there’s passion. There’s belief in this club from the players and the coaching staff. It was just another day at the office.”

As time ticked down in regulation, one second half substitute stood up and changed everything. Coby Handy Jean Rodriguez, a former Haitian professional with more first names than Ricky Bobby, scored two goals in the final ten minutes to win the match, 4-3. Motown is the first New Jersey side to win a national amateur league championship since New York Red Bulls U-23 won the NPSL in 2014.

“It’s absolutely fantastic. Not only the win, but the way and manner we won it,” said head coach Gideon Baah. “It was an exciting game. I’m happy for the guys, I’m happy for the club, I’m happy for the owners and I’m happy for the community.”

The match for the 20th NPSL final was contested on a hot, 90 degree Garden State evening at Montclair State University. A packed crowd of 2,065 (better than any Red Bulls II game this season) gathered in the main stand of the stadium, nearly all backing East Region champion Motown. Those in attendance included former Motown, RBNY, and Columbus Crew forward Dilly Duka — who took part in the pregame handshake between teams. Elsewhere former Motown head coach and Red Bull homegrown Šaćir Hot cheered on his former team from the balcony on MSU’s nearby business building.

Both men were part of Morristown’s last run to the national championship. That final at Drew University in 2018 ended with the visiting (The) Miami FC 2 winning the trophy, 3-1.

Their opponent on the night was West Region champion Crossfire Redmond from Washington. Despite their weaker regular season record, late additions to the roster had essentially turned the academy squad into a University of Washington super team. The team had played on the road nearly every game this postseason from San Francisco to Michigan. Its shocking 3-0 win over top seeded Muskegon Risers was the reason the game was being hosted by third seed Motown.

The first ten minutes of the game provided an indication for what was to come. Motown charged off the whistle and defender Zach Perez crossed in a ball from the left side. The ball skimmed over the head of attacker Joe Holland just as another Celtic player dove head first looking to make contact. Instead it was grabbed by Crossfire keeper Bryce Logan and rolled back into play all within 60 seconds. A few minutes later in the fifth minute, Crossfire nearly got on the board when River Stewart got the ball about 10 feet from goal in the box. His shot got past goalkeeper David Greczek but rang off the left post, rolling across the goalline and remaining in play.

Ryan Peterson celebrates the opener for Motown.
Photo by Miguel Gonzalez

One of these teams was looking to score early. Luck, and in Baah’s words belief, fell to Motown in the 9th minute. Perez’s long ball fell towards forward and former Detroit City FC star Ryan Peterson. A Crossfire player attempted to head the ball down and away but miss-hit. Instead the Mount Olive, NJ native rushed past him and shot low towards the right post. The home team was up 1-0 as the bleachers rocked at MSU.

Just before the half hour mark they struck again. A counter attack on the right side saw a pass come into the box. Former Houston Dynamo Joseph Holland spun around a defender and picked up the ball, passing up to Franco Catania. The Rutgers-Newark alumni slotted in the shot to make it 2-0.

Just after the referee blew his whistle to indicate the first hydration break of the match. This stoppage seemed to halt Motown’s momentum. Prior to it the back and forth offense was favoring them. But even one change of pace gave Crossfire a chance to regroup, essentially acting as a well placed timeout.

It almost felt like a repeat of the first match of the 2022 US Open Cup. The first half ended with Morristown leading 2-0 over regional rival West Chester United SC. But once Motown had to stop playing the visitors rallied back and scored twice before winning, 3-2, in extra time. It took an act of God and messed up substitution for Motown to avenge that loss in a rare tournament replay. That wasn’t an option here.

Redmond’s offense picked up while Motown’s chances slowed down. The closest the team got to adding a third goal was a blocked shot at the top of the box. The lack of former Red Bulls II player Joe Fala was felt for a second game. His 6’7” frame up top was sorely missed on long passes and especially crosses. It’s why Tulsa Athletic held a lead deep into the previous weekend’s national semifinal.

Meanwhile Crossfire began exploiting and causing more defensive lapses. Motown goalkeeper coach David Pekarek is someone who always analyzes team tactics. Despite the size of the Crossfire program, sitting at nearly 50 players, he commended head coach Bill Colello on how concise his game plan was implemented.

“They were very well coached. You could see that they had a game plan and a tactical way of playing. They were very good at what they were doing and staying to that style of play,” Pekarek said. “He keeps his game plan the same. It shows, you can legitimately see it’s the same. First ball, second ball, long throws, set pieces. That was the name of their game.”

The Seattle University assistant men’s soccer coach saw his plans bear fruit in a big way. In the 43rd minute his team played up the right side of the field. Three passes saw the ball go from near the corner flag to nearly unmarked Christian Soto Rincon on the left side. He moved himself closer to the left post and scored past Greczek and a Motown defender on the line.

A tying goal was coming. Players on the field knew it on both sides and so did some fans in the stand. The quiet that fell over the crowd when it finally came was deafening. Again coming from the right side, a 45+3’ cross into the box by Scott Menzies was headed in with force by Hamza Haddadi. The game was knotted at 2-2 heading into the break.

“(Crossfire) play like a team, they play together. Most importantly they press together and they fight together,” Baah explained. The former Red Bulls defender went on to say the game was lost in those moments due to his team losing control. Little mistakes built up and all came to a head at once. “That was difficult. At halftime I had to speak to them. That we have to be confident and we have to have composure.”

In particular the Motown midfield was especially chaotic. Danny Cordiero became almost a liability either getting picked off on the sides or having his long passes intercepted. Forward Ben Assane, who scored nine goals during the regular season, only had one one or two looks on net. With Motown trying to re-coordinate, Crossfire jumped in the 48th minute after halftime. A free kick on the left side by Munier Hussen was struck low and fast towards the box. The ball hit off Scott Menzies, rolling past him and his assigned defender before the Crossfire player struck the ball past Greczek to make it 3-2.

Despite allowing three goals in a ten minute span (across two halves), Greczek’s performance in goal can’t be understated. The former professional and current plumber made multiple standout saves for his team. In the 17th minute, a run up the middle by Soto Rincon saw the midfielder pass up to an onside Stewart. Seeing his last defender get beat, Greczek faced the Everett Community College alumni one-on-one. Coming out just past the goal area, the keeper kept his feet and stopped the low shot before jumping on top of it.

Even with his team down, Greczek quickly recovered and kept the game from falling out of hand. In the 56th minute Stewart nearly made it 4-2 with an excellent scissor kick from the right side of the box. The keeper stood his ground and blocked it directly and back into play.

The performance reinforced something Motown goalkeeper coach David Pekarek had already come to accept. The current St. Benedict’s Prep soccer coach has been able to train nearly every week with Greczek and backup keeper Joshua Schaffer. On a team that famously doesn’t practice often, it’s allowed him to come to a clear consensus that he’d waited all season to tell specifically me.

“These two goalkeepers that I have are the top two goalkeepers in the NPSL. And it’s because of the relationship, the bond, the union that they have together, the three of us,” Pekarek explained. “When goals are given up, one of the biggest things for me… I’m always analyzing. What could Dave or what could Josh have done differently? And that’s what we do. It’s not just being on the field, or practicing, it’s the extra stuff.”

Still, the team needed offense and substitutes started to come in around the 60th minute. Baah quickly signaled off to the side and before long Coby Handy Jean Rodriguez stood ready. He gave a quick double high five to Assane before coming on for him. Like others on his team, Jean had previously played professionally. A four year stint at Haiti’s AS Mirebalais and multiple caps for various youth national teams all dotted a resume that slowed after arriving in the US.

“I used to play with (Samuel Pompe), (Jean Voltaire), ( Nerlin St Vil) and (Junior Delva) before,” he told OaM in a text message. “They are the ones (who told) me about Motown and we talk every day about soccer. We always want the best for each other and we said if we’re here we gotta fight for it, we gotta win the NPSL championship.”

Jean hadn’t been the flashiest of players, especially among Motown’s Haitian contingent. His tying goal the previous week in Tulsa in the 85th minute saved the team’s season ahead of Holland’s game winner a few moments later. But outside of that the former pro hadn’t been a team centerpiece.

Maybe in a way that helped Crossfire only see him as a pair of quick, fresh legs. Because after his arrival Motown’s offense slowly but surely began to pick up. By the end of the second half the team’s corner kicks had gone from one to five plus a free kick near the flag. Still lacking the Fala height, many of the attempts were cleared out. But the chances were growing.

That’s why when Perez made a long cross from the right side in the 81st minute, it really didn’t feel like anything. The ball went to no one and headed towards the backline for what should have been a goal kick. Rewatching the replay Jean almost seems to appear from out of nowhere on the left side of the field, running on the ball from the defender’s blindspot. Picking it off the line and getting around the Crossfire player, his shot from a tough angle rocketed into the net near the opposite post to level the game at 3-3.

He wasn’t done though. Nine minutes later with the game seemingly destined for overtime a long pass from the left side of the Motown end came towards Jean on a run in the middle. Logan came out of his net to challenge but the ball came down just in front of him and closer to the Haitian. The Motown man quickly tapped it around the keeper’s right side. Time almost slowed down as the nearby defenders seemed miles away. Jean carefully, slowly, moved in front of the net before slamming home the shot.

“Man that went so slow in my head! I’m like, ‘he has no pressure just please tap it in.’” Greczek said afterwards about his view from the other side of the field. “Coby just blasts the ball… he’s crazy.”

It was this moment especially that earned him NPSL Man of the Match honors from media and league officials. As he ran to celebrate near the Motown bench, the first person to tackle-hug him wasn’t a player but Pekarek in his bright green, vintage Motown polo shirt. Drenched in more sweat than any of the guys on the field.

“They only need a fresh (set of) legs,” Jean said. “Coach Toure and coach Gideon said go in the field and give everything you have and I go with confidence.

“I’m so proud of myself, it’s all about work. Like I always said when you work so hard the results will come after. ‘I will keep working hard until I get to the next level ‘ that’s what I want.”

As the final whistle blew the crowd at Montclair State crowded near the field line. The Motown players jumped into the stands and celebrated, hugging one another after pulling off a late comeback win yet again. In a season filled with difficulty, especially losing their brother and teammate Sainclair Tueno to a car accident, everything came to a head in one night.

A team that rarely, if ever, practices, filled with liquor store workers, former Red Bull players, Haitian youth national team experience, and far more came won a national title. But if you ask Baah it’s more than that.

“It has nothing to do with experience. It has more to do with belief. Of course we were leading, they were leading, we had to come back. We wanted it more,” he said, also admitting the night was one of the happiest days of not only his long career but his life. “We never stopped playing, we never stopped believing, we never stopped fighting. Experience may count a little but it’s only one game, it just happens to be a final.”

Motown has two things to look ahead to now for next year. The farthest reaching Open Division (amateur) team in last year’ Lamar Hunt tournament has a guaranteed spot in the 2023 Open Cup. Additionally, should they want it, the team is also invited to the 2023 Hank Steinbrecher Cup. That tournament invites the national champions from leagues associated with the U.S. Adult Soccer Association over one weekend.

But that’s all for another day. For now, FC Morristown Celtics can celebrate their national title. Whether that’s as a former pro, high school coach, truck driver, or whatever else occupies their time off the field.