PORTLAND—Even after winning 10 games, including one against longtime nemesis Scarborough, the defending state champion, the jury was still out in the minds of some when it came to the Portland boys’ soccer team.
Then, Wednesday night, the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with the most storied program in the state and delivered the message that they’re in this thing for the long haul.
Hosting two-time defending Class B state champion Falmouth (which moved up a class this year due to enrollment numbers) in a Western Class A quarterfinal round playoff game at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland got a first half goal from junior Jonathan Bobe to gain some confidence.
Then, after fending off four straight Yachtsmen corner kicks early in the second half, the Bulldogs got some breathing room on a Falmouth own goal, which was credited to Bobe. Moments later, senior standout Yusef Yama ended all doubt by burying his own rebound and Portland went on to an emphatic 3-0 victory.
The Bulldogs improved to 11-2-2, ended the Yachtsmen’s season at 9-5-2 and advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round, where they will go to No. 2 Noble (12-2-1) for a 3 p.m. contest.
“You’re looking at the flagship program of the state of Maine across the field,” said longtime Portland coach Rocco Frenzilli. “I lost track of their state championship banners. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. I’m just so happy for my guys because they worked so hard to get here. This was a game we knew we had to have and we knew it would be tough. It was all the way through.”
While Portland has been a longtime contender and Falmouth has been the state’s gold standard over the past 15 years, the schools have always been in different leagues and classes and never met in a countable game.
Not that the teams weren’t aware of each other.
“(Longtime Falmouth coach) David (Halligan) and I played summer soccer together in the late 60s, early 70s,” Frenzilli said. “We went to our first coaching camp together and got our license. We started our coaching careers together. He was at Cape, then went to Falmouth and I stayed at Portland. He’s a good friend. We work out together in the summer. I’m honored to play against that team. I know what he’s accomplished. If they’re the flagship program, he’s steering that ship. I’ve learned an awful lot from him. He knows the game.”
That on-the-field infamiliarity changed this year as the Yachtsmen moved to Class A for the playoffs.
Falmouth had a challenging regular season to say the least, as for much of the year, it had trouble putting the ball in the net.
The Yachtsmen lost twice each to rivals Greely and Yarmouth and tied Cape Elizabeth and York once apiece. Falmouth beat everyone else, however, and closed on a four-game win streak to earn the No. 6 seed. Saturday, the Yachtsmen had no trouble with No. 11 Bonny Eagle in the preliminary round, rolling, 5-0, behind three goals from junior standout Luke Velas, to advance.
Portland, which barely got in the playoffs last fall before making a spirited run, staked its claim as a top contender early with a stunning victory at Scarborough. The Bulldogs would lose at Noble and South Portland and tied Cheverus and Gorham, but their 10-2-2 mark gave them the No. 3 seed and a bye into the quarterfinals.
Wednesday, Portland carried play much of the way and enjoyed a landmark win.
After the Yachtsmen weren’t able to finish some early chances, the Bulldogs got the only goal they would need in the 24th minute, as talented junior Haron Habibzai set up Bobe, who beat Falmouth senior goalkeeper Will D’Agostino.
“I can’t remember who passed me the ball in the box,” Bobe said. “I just saw it coming to me and I just had to kick the ball into the net. It felt very good.”
“We had a couple early chances,” Halligan said. “If we’d put one of those in, it would have been completely different and we could have built up our confidence.”
The Yachtsmen had their chances to get back in the game early in the second half, but the unheralded Bulldogs’ defense wouldn’t give in.
With 34:26 to play, Velas fired a 35-yard free kick into the box, but a Portland defender headed it away.
After senior Ibrahim Dahir bent a shot just wide and Habibzai had a one-timer saved by D’Agostino, the Yachtsmen went back on offense and earned four consecutive corner kicks, but couldn’t put a shot on net.
“It’s hard to keep my defense organized with all the crowd noise, but those guys are really good team guys and they understand what they’ve got to do,” said Portland sophomore goalkeeper Bobby Brittingham. “Guys are so caught up in the moment, so I have to scream at them to get them organized. They pulled through and did what they needed to. We came together as a team today.”
“All year, we stress the defensive end,” said Frenzilli. “In the regular season, we only gave up six goals. That’s a credit to the defense. They play well, smart and simple out of the back. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I just want to get the ball out of there, get it through the midfield and play it up top.”
Then, with 26:39 to go, the game turned for good, as Bobe raced in, attempted to cross the ball to Yama, but instead, it deflected off a Falmouth defender and past D’Agostino to make it 2-0.
“I was trying to cross the ball to Yama, but the defender kicked the ball in instead,” said Bobe. “It was a lucky goal.”
“You make your chances,” Frenzilli said. “Jonathan made a nice play, sent it across and it bounced off a kid. From our end it was a nice break.”
It took just 2 minutes, 4 seconds for the hosts to strike again and this time, the goal was clean.
Dahir sent a pass to Yama, who controlled the ball, got past a defender and after D’Agostino came out to contest, Yama shot the ball past him. It trickled toward the far post and hit it square, but Yama followed his shot and touched the rebound home to make it 3-0 and essentially end the competitive phase of the contest.
“They had us on our heels,” said Halligan. “They’re a fine team. They have great players. You can keep them down but not for long. They have the tools to go all the way. Rock does it the right way. He tries to develop good soccer players and fine young men, like we do.”
Down the stretch, Falmouth had a few looks, but freshman Jonah Spiegel shot high, a Velas feed was just out of the reach of senior captain Nick Burton and a great look in close by junior Ben Lydick was denied by Brittingham in diving fashion.
“I had terrible form,” said Brittingham. “I landed on the ball and got the wind knocked out of me, but a save’s a save.”
From there, the Bulldogs ran out the clock on their 3-0 triumph.
“Winning the first game of the playoffs was big for us,” Bobe said. “We played for each other this game.”
“This gives us a lot of confidence,” Brittingham said. “They’re a really skilled Class A team. They have talented players too.”
Making Brittingham’s day even better was that he pitched a shutout on his 16th birthday and continued to turn heads as one of the best keepers around.
“It’s been a great birthday,” Brittingham said.
“It was his birthday, so it was nice for him to get the win,” said Frenzilli. “He played really well. It’s interesting when you sit on the bench with (his dad, also named Bobby Brittingham), who has to wear two hats. Steve DeBree works with him and Bobby soaks it up like a sponge. You can’t get anybody better than Steve. He’s experienced collegiately and even professionally. You can be a dinosaur, but still know the game.”
While this wasn’t a vintage Falmouth juggernaut, this group gave its all from start to finish and kept the program’s postseason streak alive (now at 14 seasons). It won’t be long until the Yachtsmen are back among the elite.
“We paid our dues,” Halligan said. “We knew coming in we didn’t have a lot of experience. We played the toughest schedule we could get. We got into the tournament. I would have been disappointed if we didn’t make the tournament, because I wanted these guys to experience this. We have players who will be bigger, stronger and better players next year. I’m disappointed with the loss, but pleased with our effort.”
Frenzilli tipped his cap.
“I knew they’d come in and be ready,” he said. “David has a young team, but they can play. They go very deep. With the schedule they play, they were a very experienced and a very good number six seed.”
The Bulldogs, if they needed any extra incentive, will be fired up to avenge their 1-0 loss at the Knights Sept. 17.
Portland and Noble have no playoff history.
The Bulldogs have no interest in slowing down now.
“We want that Gold Ball, but we can’t look past anybody,” Brittingham said. “We’ll be ready.”
“We’re just happy to practice for a couple more days and play more ball,” Frenzilli said.
Portland sophomore goalkeeper Bobby Brittingham makes a save. Brittingham got a playoff victory for his 16th birthday Wednesday.
Dangerous Falmouth junior Luke Velas looks for a shot.
Falmouth junior Jake Grade heads the ball away from Portland senior Ibrahim Dahir.
Portland junior Haron Habibzai fights Falmouth junior Gabe Mahoney for possession.
Portland senior standout Yusef Yama, who scored the game’s final goal, plays the ball.
Portland junior Jonathan Bobe is congratulated by teammates after giving the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead in their Western A quarterfinal Wednesday night. Bobe scored again and Portland tacked on one more to beat Falmouth, 3-0.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.