The longest serving teams in the St. Albert Men’s Soccer League are rebuilding instead of reloading after waging a fierce battle for playoff honours last year.
In Tuesday’s 1-1 draw Chester City and the Rummies struggled to put their best foot forward in the first tilt between the division one clubs since Chester knocked off the Rummies 3-1 in the 2008 final for the first championship in their 14-year history.
“It was a pretty awful game, actually. I don’t think either team played very well tonight,” said Rummies’ striker Brian van Essen. “It was lacking emotion, that’s why it looked so flat. We were both tentative. We both have new guys on our teams too.”
Julian Charles of the Rummies scored in the 27th minute and Chester rookie Colin Andrews kicked in the equalizer 12 minutes into the second half.
“It was a fair result. It was a defensive battle,” said Chester captain Mike Fulton. “We both have quite different squads. I think we were feeling each other out a little bit. Towards the end it started to open up a bit more like Chester/Rummies football.”
The Rummies controlled the ball in the first half but had difficulty putting quality shots on net. The goal by Charles, a rough and tumble centre-midfielder, was a long, low shot through traffic into the back corner of the net. The kick caught a screened Trent Hillman by surprise in the Chester net.
“In the first half we certainly came out strong. We used the wing a lot better. Guys looked a little fresher too,” said van Essen, the 2008 Golden Boot award winner with 16 goals. “In the second half they had the momentum right from the start. We came out really flat and it took us awhile to get going.”
Chester barely turned a wheel offensively in the opening 45 minutes. Top guns Erik Feldmann and Matt Starcheski, a goalie-turned-striker, didn’t get untracked until the second half when Chester started getting shots away with some consistency. Feldmann and Starches netted three goals apiece in their first three games. They are being counted on to fill a gaping hole up front with the departure of Cohen Cassidy to the St. Albert Impact division 2A team in the Edmonton District Soccer Association. Cassidy was Chester’s top scoring threat in league play with 15 goals. He also fired the opening goal of the final against the Rummies. He leads all division 2A scorers with nine goals.
“Hopefully we’ll score as many goals as we did last year and if we can, we’re pretty sure that we can fight for that top spot,” Fulton said.
The tying marker by Andrews, a Grade 11 Bellerose Composite High School student, was a rebound marker. The ball bounced around several players in the box before the curly-haired winger got a toe on it.
“He’s kind of the next generation of Chester City players, which is good news because some of us are getting up there in age now,” said Fulton, 28. “We’ve picked up a few quality players, a couple of really young guys 16 and 17 years old and they’re showing really strong out there. We’ll move forward with them and see what we can do.”
With the score tied, the pace of the game picked up. Feldmann and Starches elevated their play considerably. As for Chester, Hillman pulled off a couple of wicked stops. He also lucked out late in the game when a Chester defender tried to head the ball out of harm’s way. Instead the ball went behind Hillman and rattled off the crossbar.
Hillman, a former Rummie, was pressed into service between the posts when Chester’s new keeper was recently transferred to Kelowna. Last year Hillman finished fourth in the Golden Boot standings with 14 goals.
Tuesday’s result put the Rummies at 3-1-1. Chester is 2-1-2.
“We’ve been working on a couple of new systems and we’re filling in some spots with some new guys. We’re still feeling out exactly what our team is about this year,” Fulton said. “Today actually felt a little bit better than the last couple of games so that’s good news for us. We’re going to take this and move forward and have a better game [Sunday versus the Decepticons at 3 p.m. at Riel Park].”
Pride was on the line for the Rummies after losing the final for only the third time in 16 straight appearances.
“At the beginning of the game the talk was these guys beat us last year and in probably the most important one game of the season,” said van Essen, 34, a former Chester player who switched sides several years ago. “Overall we won the season [pennant]. Soccer is a team game and that goes for longevity, not just one game.”
He is one of the few Rummies remaining from when the team was a consistent tier II provincial gold medal contender.
“We’ve really lost all the veterans and it’s tough to play Rummies ball that we’ve played in 10 years past but we’re going to try and work that out. We want to come back and get stronger as the season goes on,” said van Essen, who scored twice in the Rummies 3-1 win over the young and talented Gainer FC team last weekend.
As for Chester they are adjusting to life as defending champions.
“It’s a new feeling for us. Some of the teams are gunning for us. Summit got us [3-0, with a couple of late tallies] in our last game. They played really well. You could tell when the game started they wanted us. They came at us and I don’t think we were ready for it. We’ve got to get used to that mentality. We’ve got to know right from the start that a lot of teams are looking to beat us,” said Fulton, 28, a defender by trade who patrolled the wing against the Rummies. “Our goal is to finish first in the league and win the title. We’re not just looking to defend it, we’re looking to add to it.”