PAWTUCKET — “This game is going to be like ‘The Thrilla In Manila,’” La Salle Academy soccer coach Mario Pereira was saying on Tuesday night. “This is going to be a classic … two great teams trying to sort things out … two teams with a lot of skilled players … and kids on both sides who share an incredible passion for the game.”
Pereira was talking about Saturday’s Division I state championship soccer game between his squad and Pawtucket’s Shea High. It is a heavyweight matchup between a private school and a public school, between the so-called rich kids and the city kids.
The common bonds that link them are their style of play and love of the game.
“We both play the same way,” Shea coach Pierre Ridore said. “We like to move the ball with one or two touches. A lot of teams play kickball … kick the ball and chase it. We don’t play that way and neither does La Salle. I think Saturday’s game could be one of the best games the state has seen in a long time.”
La Salle, 14-1-5 overall this season, is led by high-scoring forward Rainer Randell (14 goals, 9 assists) and versatile midfielder Colin Patch.
“Patch is around 6 feet, 4 inches,” Ridore said. “He plays in the center of the field. Their passes go through him and he distributes the ball to his teammates. He is the heart of the La Salle team, their leader, the guy they follow.”
Shea, 13-3-4, possesses a 1-2 knockout punch of high-scoring forwards Emerson Barros (22 goals, 10 assists) and Joao Cardoso (19 goals, 12 assists). Barros, the fastest player in the state, plays the game like former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss. If he gets behind the defense, look out. Cardoso is more like Wes Welker, productive and explosive at the same time.
“We played them straight up last time,” Pereira said, speaking of a 2-2 tie between the two teams last month in which Cardoso scored two second-half goals after the Rams dominated the first half. “I don’t know what we’re going to do this time. I’ve watched Shea play three or four times this season. It’s too early (in the week) to make a decision.”
Shea scored eight goals in its two playoff wins over Portsmouth and Cumberland. La Salle netted four during tough wins over South Kingstown (2-1) and defending state champion Barrington (2-0). The Raiders outscored opponents 53-18 during the league season while the Rams enjoyed a 45-14 edge over their foes.
“We’ve been the best defensive team in the league,” Pereira admitted. “But defense is not necessarily our main goal. We want to play good quality soccer that is enjoyable to watch. Our attack is our main focus as a team. We want to get our opponents to react to us as opposed to us reacting to what they do.”
Most Shea opponents have paid extra attention to Barros and Cardoso. Cumberland kept a defender on Barros at all times, and when the ball came to his side of the field, one or two more Clippers would surround the Cape Verde native. Cardoso works the middle of the field, creating plays with his passing skills. He also draws a crowd when the ball reaches his feet.
It was Cardoso, a native of Portugal, who rallied Shea from a 2-0 deficit in the second half against La Salle with a pair of goals that came on powerful kicks.
“Joao had to sit down for a while in the first La Salle game,” Ridore recalled. “He was weak. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was just hungry. Fortunately, my girlfriend had an apple and she gave it to Joao. He ate the apple, went back in the game and scored two brilliant goals.”
La Salle scored five minutes into that first game when sophomore midfielder Daniel Apajee set up striker Trevor Torres. The Rams took a 2-0 lead late in the first half after Randell converted with an assist from Patch.
“Number 8 (Apajee) has skills like Cardoso,” Ridore said. “He is able to dribble the ball, take shots, and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. They scored on set plays against us. Our defense didn’t clear the ball on Randell’s goal and he knocked the rebound in.”
Ridore has had nearly a month to go over that first meeting of the state finalists.
“We only took one or two shots in the first half,” he said. “In the second half, we had just four shots but two of them were incredible shots by Cardoso. We need to take more shots on goal this time, instead of dribbling the ball and holding it too long. We have some beautiful shot-makers. We just have to take good shots on their goal.”
The Raiders are more than just the 1-2 punch of Barros and Cardoso. Junior Issifou Kankarafou is a clever midfielder who can distribute and defend. Fellow midfielders Richmond Baffour, Ienik Spencer, William Neves and Kevin Andrade, who comes off the bench, add speed and ballhandling skills.
The back-line defense of Elvys Varela, Julio Ramos, Ruben Fortes, William Baah and keeper Julio Garcia will be tested by a La Salle team that will create opportunities on offense.
Both teams will look to score off of corner kicks and throw-ins.
“I certainly am not waiting for dead-ball situations to score against Shea,” Pereira said. “We’re going to try and frustrate them by keeping the ball. The best way to frustrate a really good team that is so used to having the ball all the time is to keep the ball away from them.”
Shea, which had to remain patient against a defense-oriented Cumberland team in the semifinals, welcomes the challenge of playing full-tilt, end-to-end soccer against a talented team like La Salle.
“I think we learned a lesson from our first game against La Salle,” Ridore said. “In the first half, we just kind of walked through it, letting La Salle take the initiative. The second half, we played with heart and passion. We trusted each other a lot more in the second half.”
The first game ended with emotions running high. Neither team wanted the match to end in a stalemate.
“Do these teams like each other?” Pereira said, repeating a question posed to him. “I don’t know. Do the Patriots like the Steelers? This is a good rivalry between two great teams. That’s all.”
Pereira is more interested in talking about Saturday’s matchup, on the field, not off it.
“Some teams just grunt and run and chase the ball,” the veteran coach said. “Shea and La Salle move the ball up the field like they are playing basketball, passing to teammates, working for a good shot. I’ve been saying for a long time that a lot of sports fans don’t know what they are missing when it comes to high school soccer in this state. Well, they are really missing something if they don’t come out and see this game.”
“It’s going to be a beautiful game to watch,” the Shea coach said.
Saturday’s match will begin at high noon at Rhode Island College’s pitch.