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PAWTUCKET â€” Former Central Falls coach Bobby Marchand used to describe soccer â€“ when played correctly -- as â€śthe beautiful game.â€ť
That description came to mind on Saturday when Marchandâ€™s old team, now coached by long-time Marchand assistant Carl Africo, played to a 1-1 stalemate with Shea High in a battle of Division I state title contenders. Both Shea and Central Falls play a similar game that emphasizes passing and playmaking at its core.
Since there are no secrets in soccer, at least not among the top six D-I state title contenders, â€śthe beautiful gameâ€ť isnâ€™t easy to execute. Shea and Central Falls both struggled to complete offensive plays, in part because of intense defensive pressure on both sides of the field.
â€śWe have only scored two goals in our last three games,â€ť said Shea coach Pierre Ridore, who played for Marchand in the early 1990s at Central Falls and emphasizes many of the tenets he learned from his one-time mentor. â€śA lot of our players are trying to do too much on their own. We canâ€™t seem to finish our plays right now.â€ť
Shea (8-2-3), which a week ago was linked with unbeaten La Salle (10-0-3) as one of the two elite teams in D-I, is now grouped with the other challengers to the Rams â€“ schools like Central Falls (7-1-5 and leader of the North), Portsmouth (8-3-2), South Kingstown (8-2-2), and defending state champion Barrington (6-3-2).
The Raiders are 0-1-2 in their last three matches.
Central Fallsâ€™ stock has risen steadily this season, dating back to the Warriorsâ€™ 0-0 tie with La Salle back in September.
â€śI think weâ€™re very evenly matched with Shea,â€ť Africo said after Saturdayâ€™s match had ended. â€śThis was a fitting outcome to the game today. I told Pierre before the game that no matter what happens, we each have five games left in the season and we have to take care of business in those games.â€ť
Saturdayâ€™s game featured two early goals, defensive excellence and ineffectual offense for the final 70 minutes.
Shea scored four minutes into the match when co-captain Joao Cardoso set up midfielder Richmond Baffour for a shot that got past C.F. goalie Anthony Escobar.
Six minutes later, the Warriors responded on a goal by Kelvin Castillo, with the assist going to Steven Serpa.
Serpaâ€™s larger contribution came with his tenacious defense on high-scoring Shea forward Emerson Barros, who came into the game with 16 goals.
â€śI think Steven and Kelvin should make all-state this year,â€ť Africo said. â€śSteven did a great job covering Barros today. We wanted to make sure No. 9 (Barros) and No. 10 (Cardoso) were marked all game.â€ť
Double-coverage is nothing new to the Raiders.
â€śTeams have been putting two and three guys on Emerson and Joao for the last two seasons,â€ť Ridore said.
The Raiders controlled the ball for most of the second half with Barros and Cardoso both getting open briefly on several occasions before the Warriorsâ€™ defense recovered. Shea has several other players who must step up when its two leading scorers are doubled. Co-captain Issifou Kankarafou (six goals this season), along with Baffour and Ienik Spencer, are among the candidates to take up the slack.
â€śWe lead the league in goals scored,â€ť Ridore said. â€śBut right now, we are not playing our game.â€ť
Shea has scored 43 goals in 13 matches this season. The Raiders have also given up 14, which is one of their weaknesses. La Salle has a scoring differential of 34-7 this season. Portsmouth, which is one point behind Shea in the North, owns a 28-7 edge over its foes. The Patriots beat Shea 2-1 in September and earned a 1-1 tie with the Raiders this past Thursday.
Central Falls has outscored its foes by a 23-10 margin this season. South Kingstown, which hosts Shea this afternoon, holds a 22-7 scoring edge on its opponents.
â€śWe have confidence in our defense,â€ť Ridore said on Saturday. â€śWe play everyone straight up. We did not try to double (Kelvin Castillo) today.â€ť
Ridore is more concerned with his teamâ€™s offense than its defense right now.
â€śI think we have to trust each other more,â€ť he said, indicating that the Raiders are going 1-on-1 too often instead of making the extra â€śtouchâ€ť or two to prolong an offensive thrust.
Central Falls has been traveling under the radar most of the season in the North Division, where sub-.500 Central (5-7-1) and Cumberland (4-5-3) are tied for second place. Lincoln (1-9-2) and Hope (0-11-2) round out the division.
The Warriors have the softest schedule of any top title contender, finishing up with four games against losing teams in their own division. They do meet South Kingstown in their regular season finale.
At this point in the season, playoff contenders are jockeying for the best seeding in the postseason. Shea and C.F. with 19 points apiece are second to La Salle at the moment. The Raiders must visit both South Kingstown and La Salle this week. They could easily fall to fourth or fifth in the point race with a pair of losses.
Maybe that thought will be a wakeup call for a Shea team that seems to think it can soar into the finals on talent alone.