Ivor Dent Sports Park – Winning the U15 National Cup was a golden moment for the St. Albert Impact.
Monday’s 2-1 thriller against Calgary Foothills FC marked the first national championship by a St. Albert Soccer Association team since the U18 male Cougars in 1989.
“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience,” said goalkeeper Matteo Pagliuso during the chaotic post-game celebration at field level involving Impact players, coaches and fans. “It’s really cool.”
The gold-medal goal was scored with gusto by Felix Mutuyemungu in the 57th minute after Calgary pulled even five minutes earlier.
“It was a very good team play. We got the ball down the wing and Ali Blaybel passed it and I just put my foot through the ball,” said Mutuyemungu of his third goal in the Impact’s fifth match at the 12-team tournament.
The point-blank low shot from just outside the box without being pressured by a defender triggered a joyful tsunami as Mutuyemungu and teammates charged toward the barricade separating the pitch and stands to feel the love from the loud and proud Impact supporters.
“It’s nice that I got the winning goal, but my focus is on the team because we won this as a collective group and I would not be here without them,” said Mutuyemungu, who admitted, “I’m excited. I’m pumping,” when pressed to described his emotions as the man of the match.
As the team of destiny, the Impact were not to be denied after Calgary scored the equalizer.
“We didn’t put our heads down. We just kept on going. They thought they had the momentum, but we just had to bounce back as fast as we could and we did that,” said Armaan Natt, the first scorer in the final with a free kick near the touchline in front of the Calgary bench that dropped over a bundle of players in the box and slipped through the hands of the keeper while slowly rolling into the back of the net.
“I didn’t even know that it went in. I just wanted to put the ball close to the goalie so everybody would crash the net and it just went in,” Natt said of the opportunistic goal in the 15th minute and his first of the tournament.
“It was a good feeling. We got the momentum and they were under pressure and if we got the second goal it would’ve been better, but unfortunately they got it and then Felix came up clutch,” Natt said.
“Felix scored an absolute banger and we needed that,” added Pagliuso, who was unlucky on the tying marker as Calgary took advantage of a couple of fortunate plays moving the ball forward on the scoring opportunity. “It was a 50/50 ball in our box and they won it.”
Pagliuso, 13, was a steady defensive presence throughout the match, especially as time wound down and Calgary frantically trying to knot it at two.
“It’s really scary. As a keeper, if you make one mistake it’s in your net,” said the Grade 8 Elmer S. Gish student, who pulled off a hairy diving save in tight of the post in the last minute before extra time.
The Impact also survived back-to-back long range free kicks by Calgary with its keeper joining the offensive attack before the whistle blew to end the entertaining affair.
“It was crazy. Back and forth,” Pagliuso said of the hard-fought final. “Our team really worked together. We were really good on the offensive end and our back line was very positive and we were talking a lot.”
Both teams were challenged by the frigid weather conditions during an afternoon of light sleet, brisk wind and a greasy playing surface.
“It was cold. Our hands are frozen. The ball was slipping a lot. Our passes weren’t going where we wanted them to go, but it worked out,” Natt said.
The rematch of the Alberta Soccer Association U15 Tier I final was played without Impact’s power forward, Dieu-Merci Michel, over a red card for violent conduct in the second-half of the 3-1 quarter-final win against Feildians AA (Nfld.) St. John’s and was suspended for Sunday’s riveting 2-1 semifinal against SC St-Laurent of Quebec that was decided on penalty kicks and Monday’s championship showdown.
Michel, who potted his third goal at nationals to make it 1-0 in the 20th minute (Ali Yildiz’s sixth goal of the tournament and Blaybel’s first also scored before St. John’s beat Pagliuso in the 58th minute), was the difference maker offensively in the provincial final Aug. 25 with a header off Natt’s free kick in the second half for the 1-0 decision against Foothills in Calgary. The winner was Michel’s fifth goal at provincials.
“(Sunday) morning I told Felix he was going to score two goals so I guess the one in the game plus the penalty shootout counts,” said head coach Kondeh Mansaray after the Impact out-scored Quebec 7-6 on penalty kicks to book a spot in the final. “Felix knew he had to step up today obviously with Dieu-Merci missing and he put the team on his back and it was an absolutely world class performance.”
In the 54th minute, Mutuyemungu hooked a free kick from a tight angle close to the box into the top far corner as the goalkeeper got a hand on it, but it wasn’t enough to stop the ball as the Impact capped off an urgent and lengthy response to Quebec striking in the second minute on the first shot against Pagliuso.
“We just kept on grinding it out,” Mutuyemungu said. “We’ve practiced a lot for times like this and we just performed.”
Kicking from the penalty mark for the Impact, in order, were Manga Bukuru, Alejandro Leon-Rebonne (denied), Natt, Yildiz, Mutuyemungu, Aaron Bessong and Ahmad Sleiman.
Joseph Ndakala, the Impact’s backup goalkeeper who replaced Pagliuso in the 67th minute, stopped Quebec’s third shooter with a save on a low straight-on shot and the last shooter rang the ball off the post with the 12-year-old guessing right by “sliding my whole body” to the left side.
“I was just speechless because I really didn't know where the ball went. When it did hit (halfway up the post) I saw everybody jumping. It was crazy we won it. It was amazing,” said Ndakala, who is taller with longer arms than Pagliuso.
The Grade 7 Alexandre-Tache student entered the semifinal with about five minutes remaining and the round of penalty kicks looming large with no overtime to determine the outcome.
“I wasn't really ready, but after I was in I started to get into the mentality of a beast mode,” Ndakala said. “It feels really good to help your team out like that. It makes you feel like you're part of a team.
“It was also a really important game to win. It was really good for a lot of people.”
Ndakala went the distance in Friday’s 2-1 win over PEI FC after Pagliuso drew the start in Wednesday’s 7-0 thrashing of Halifax County United SC in the three-team group B qualification phase opener.
The Impact wrapped up 24-1-2 season of excellence without a loss after the dropping the first match of the season 1-0 May 8 against Inter in the Greater Edmonton Soccer League.
"We're a really good team. Our coaches are really good. All of our players work hard and never give up. Even when we want to stop we don’t,” said Natt, 14, a Grade 10 student at Belmont Secondary School in Langford, a suburb of Victoria, and member of the Pacific Football Club along with Michel.
Mutuyemungu, 15, credits Mansaray for the Impact’s wining ways.
“Kondeh has put many hours into our sessions. We practice every day. He also gives us things to work on at home. We all take it seriously. He’s worked for us the whole time so we came here and worked for him,” said the Grade 10 O’Leary student.
Mansaray coached the majority of the players – 14 are listed as Edmonton residents – on provincial championship winning teams the last four years with the Edmonton Strikers Soccer Club and that success continued this year with the Impact regional club program.
“Our mentality is it doesn't matter the adversity we're going through, we always find a way to win. We've won five provincials in a row for a reason. We're just serial winners. This is what we do. We always win,” said the SASA club program head coach.