PORTLAND—The Portland and Deering boys’ soccer teams have met countless times over the years, but Saturday morning’s showdown at Fitzpatrick Stadium was unique.
It might have even been the most meaningful encounter the squads have played.
The Rams entered undefeated, once-tied and top-ranked in Western Class A, while the Bulldogs were once-beaten, once-tied and ranked fourth.
While Heal Points, playoff positioning and most importantly, bragging rights on the line, Portland wound up standing tall.
Just six minutes, 41 seconds in, Bulldogs junior Haron Habibzai completed a terrific individual effort with a goal and Portland had the only score it would need.
The Bulldogs’ defense, featuring a tremendous effort from freshman sweeper Tim Baker, normally a reserve, held Deering at bay for 80 minutes and with 11:56 to play, Portland sophomore Sam Farr set up senior Yusef Yama for an insurance goal and the Bulldogs went on to an inspirational 2-0 victory.
With the win, Portland improved to 5-1-1, dropping Deering to 6-1-1 in the process.
“I’m so proud of how the kids came and competed,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Rocco Frenzilli. “We’ve had success against (Deering) in the past, but we knew it would be tough. I told the guys if we couldn’t get up for a game like this, we didn’t have a pulse, but we got up for it. The kids were great. “
Deering and Portland were scheduled to square off Sept. 12, but heavy rains postponed the game 24 hours, where poor field conditions prevented it from being played.
In the two weeks since, both teams have had a lot to say about the other and both have turned heads on the pitch, meaning this particular showdown was as highly anticipated as any in recent memory.
Head-to-head, since 2004, Portland had won five times (on the field at least), Deering prevailed once and the teams thrice settled for ties (please see below).
Both squads made the playoffs regardless and each have impressed so far in 2013.
Deering opened with a 1-0 home win over Cheverus in a playoff rematch, then blanked visiting Massabesic, 3-0. The Rams then made an impressive statement with a 1-0 victory at Gorham. After settling for a scoreless tie against visiting Noble, Deering defeated host Windham, 1-0, visiting Bonny Eagle, 3-0, and Thursday evening, visiting South Portland, 3-2, on senior captain Ben Peterson’s late goal.
Portland blanked visiting Sanford in its opener, 5-0, but that was a mere appetizer to what came next, a stunning 1-0 upset at defending Class A champion Scarborough.
Then, the Bulldogs quickly fell back to earth with a 1-0 loss at Noble.
“Noble was a huge wakeup call for us,” said Frenzilli. “Giving all credit to them, they did what they needed to do, but we weren’t ready for that game. When we play as a team, we can play with anybody, but when we play like individuals, anybody can play with us.”
Portland bounced back to defeat visiting Bonny Eagle (6-0), host Thornton Academy (2-0) and host Massabesic (4-0) before settling for a 1-1 home tie with Cheverus Thursday. In that one, Yama scored late in regulation to force overtime, where Portland appeared to win, only to have the goal waved off to a controversial offsides call.
Saturday morning, the Bulldogs displayed a superb team effort and that was enough to beat the Rams yet again.
Deering possessed the ball early, as sophomore Christian Castaneda’s cross was cleared, junior standout Stephen Ochan’s shot was saved by Portland sophomore goalkeeper Bobby Brittingham and and shot from Rams sophomore Jonathan Bujambi sailed just high.
Portland then transitioned to offense and in the blink of an eye, had a 1-0 lead.
Habibzai, who presents a matchup nightmare with his size and athleticism, got to a 50-50 ball, fought his way past a defender, then fired a shot into the cage, past Deering’s standout junior goalkeeper Anthony Russo, to give the Bulldogs the momentum.
“We played with heart,” said Habibzai. “We passed as a team, not as individuals. It worked for us. Opportunities presented themselves and we came through. The ball got chipped over to me. I saw the defender about to kick the ball and I jumped in front of him. It hit my chest, I took a touch and I just shot it upper right corner and it went in. It boosted our team and gave us a lot of motivation.”
“We got a goal quickly,” Frenzilli said. “Haron has been that way with us all year. He just finds a way. That was big for us.”
In the 13th minute, Deering almost drew even, but off a throw-in from the side from Ochan, Peterson’s header hit the post.
Bujambi then sent a left-footed shot just wide, striking the outside of the goal, and Bujambi fired another left-footed shot, which Brittingham saved.
With 5:03 left in the half, Brittingham outleapt Bujambi for a feed in the box and Portland, despite being outshot, 6-4, took its one-goal lead to the break.
Even though the Bulldogs were ahead, they knew they had a long way to go.
“Coach told us at halftime that we hadn’t won yet,” said Habibzai. “That we had to give 100 percent the whole 80 minutes or they would come back.”
“I told them it was great to have the one (goal), but our motto was to make it 2-0 before they made it 1-1,” Frenzilli said.
Instead of sitting on the lead, Portland had the better of the play in the second half and eventually was rewarded with an insurance goal.
Freshman Alex Frank sent a header wide with 36:47 to play.
After Deering couldn’t convert its first corner kick, then was barely offsides on a Peterson free kick, the Bulldogs got a nice bid from senior Ibrahim Dahir, but Russo soared to make the save.
The Rams had a couple more corners with nothing to show for it and after Bujambi headed Peterson’s corner wide, Baker, filling in for senior Ek Bakunda, broke up a rush at the last second.
“It was intense out there,” Baker said. “I’ve played defense for awhile now, but I never played sweeper before. I felt comfortable. I was proud of myself. We stayed compressed in the middle and that’s how we countered.”
“Ek had a religious commitment today,” said Frenzilli. “I told Tim he was playing sweeper against Deering and looked at me nonchalantly and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got it.’ He kept it all together today. I don’t want to say he came of age, because he’s already there. That bodes well for the future.”
With 11:56 remaining, Portland made it 2-0 with a gorgeous combination, as Farr fed Yama breaking into the box and Yama fired a shot past a helpless Russo to essentially salt away the victory.
“Sam made a great pass and Yusuf came off it great,” Frenzilli said. “That was huge for us. That kind of did it.”
Down the stretch, Russo made two dazzling saves to keep the game 2-0.
First, with 6:30 to go, a bid from junior Jonathan Bobe was kicked away by Russo, as if he was a hockey goalie.
Then, with 4:15 showing, Bobe fired a left-footed shot that appeared ticketed for the twine, but Russo dove to make the save.
As time wound down, the Rams had a great chance, but a point blank shot from senior Ismail Abdi was denied by Brittingham and the Bulldogs were able to celebrate their 2-0 victory.
“We get fired up for Deering,” Baker said. “This was a great game for us. We lost, 1-0, to them in the preseason. This was our redemption. We came out and did the job. This was one of the hardest games of the season. It gets our energy up.”
“This is a very competitive rivalry,” Habibzai said. “Deering’s a very good passing team. They have an effective midfield. We had to work hard and step up in the midfield. The last 10 or so minutes, we knew we were (going to win).”
Portland finished with a 14-9 shots advantage (10-3 in the second half). The Rams had three corners to the Bulldogs’ two. Brittingham made six saves.
“We have confidence in our defense,” Frenzilli said. “We knew Deering would come back strong, but they hung tough and jelled today.”
The Rams had their chances, but suffered their first setback.
“I think we had tremendous opportunities,” said Deering coach Joel Costigan. “We controlled the ball and played good soccer, but we made two mistakes in the back and they cleaned up. Our play didn’t change after going down 1-0. We continued to have opportunities. In the second half, it became more physical, than we made a mistake, a misplayed ball that led to a goal, and lost momentum.”
Russo made seven saves.
“(Anthony’s) a tremendous goalkeeper,” Costigan said. “I think he’s the best in the league. He gobbles everything up.”
Eyeing the top spot
Deering and Portland remain in the hunt for a high seed and the possibility of at least one, if not more home playoff games.
The Rams (who still hold on to the top spot in Western A) are back in action Tuesday at Westbrook. After going to Marshwood, Deering has a home showdown with Scarborough Oct. 18. Games at Thornton Academy and Biddeford are followed by a regular season-ending home test against Sanford.
This team will remain at or near the top.
“The loss came at the perfect time,” Costigan said. “I’d rather it come in the middle of the season instead of at the end, so we can learn from it. I like for the most part how we’re playing. I wish we could finish better. We have opportunities, we just don’t have the tenacity in the final third. Our midfield is probably the strongest midfield around. We need to take fewer chances in the back.”
The Bulldogs (who moved up to second with Saturday’s win) are back home Tuesday, when they face Marshwood. After going to South Portland, Portland welcomes dangerous Gorham. The regular season culminates with games at Westbrook and Biddeford sandwiched around a home tilt with Windham, a playoff rematch.
The Bulldogs have work to do, but control their destiny.
“This is big for confidence,” Habibzai said. “I think it will give us motivation. It will make us work harder to get to where we want to be. We’ve come a long way. When we beat Scarborough, I think we thought we were all that, but we learned from our mistakes. We learned that just because we beat the defending champions, we’re not better than the others.”
“We have huge games coming up,” said Frenzilli. “We’ve already done some special things. This showed what we can do when we play together. They’re special kids. They’ve come together. Every kid is on the bus with us. Every kid is buying into what we’re doing. There’s no negativity.”
Based on Saturday’s result, there doesn’t figure to be any going forward.
Portland sophomore back Josh Irving heads the ball away from Deering junior Frankie Alvarez.
Deering senior captain Ben Peterson and Portland senior Dan Kane chase after a loose ball.
Deering senior David Bujambi tries to protect the ball from Portland junior Farris Baziga.
Portland junior Haron Habibzai looks to pass while being pressured by Deering senior Sam Hornblower. Habibzai had the game’s first goal.
Portland sophomore Sam Farr heads the ball while Deering junior Ahmed Adnan looks on.
Portland freshman Tim Baker, who had a stellar day as the Bulldogs’ sweeper, kicks the ball away from Deering sophomore Jonathan Bujambi.
Deering sophomore Matthew Alvarez and Portland senior Ibrahim Dahir fight for possession as Bulldogs junior Connor Bruce looks on.
Deering junior goalkeeper Anthony Russo collects the ball for one of his seven saves.
@ Portland 2 Deering 0
Portland 5 @ Deering 2
@ Portland 2 Deering 2 (tie)
Portland 2 @ Deering 1 (OT)
Deering 4 @ Portland 3
@ Deering 2 Portland 2 (tie)
@ Portland 1 Deering 1 (tie)
Portland 1 @ Deering 0
Portland junior Haron Habibzai (center) is congratulated after his early goal gives the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead over rival Deering in the teams’ showdown Saturday morning. Portland added another goal in the second half and prevailed, 2-0.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.