The return of premier men’s soccer to St. Albert kicked off Thursday for the Impact Rangers.
“We’re excited to be back playing premier,” said midfielder Mike Fedunyk after the 3-3 draw with the Edmonton Warriors at Riel Park. “It was a good positive start to the season.”
Relegated to division one status in the Edmonton District Soccer Association last year, the Rangers finished on top of the 1A table with 11 wins, two ties and one loss.
“It was terrible having to play division one but it was a good learning experience because we can’t take premier for granted,” said Fedunyk, one of several Rangers who played premier in 2008 for the St. Albert squad that finished eighth out of 10 teams with six wins. “We know we belong here and we can compete at premier. We’re not coming into this glad that we’re back in premier, we’re coming in thinking we should win premier if we play the way we know we can.”
The premier starting line-up was comprised mostly of veteran Rangers.
“It’s the same team as we had in div one and the skill level is the same, we just have to pick our pace up. Div one to premier is a faster game so we have to be aware of that,” said keeper Ryan Austin, the most valuable Ranger for the 2007 premier pennant winners and tier I provincial bronze medallists.
The Rangers dominated the Warriors in stretches but let the lead slip away three times.
“We played well. You can’t fault anyone. The effort was there,” Austin said. “It’s going to be a good season. I’m looking forward to it.”
Emmett Keenan opened the scoring in the 30th minute as the Rangers’ striker sidestepped a defender and fired a long ball that beat the keeper waist high on the right side.
Mark McQuaid made it 2-1 in the 43rd minute with a dazzling kick from a difficult area of the pitch from which to score. McQuaid shared the team’s Golden Boot award with Marc Tetreau last year with eight goals apiece.
A rare goal by Fedunyk gave the Rangers a brief 3-2 lead in the 68th minute. The defender turned low midfielder in the team’s new alignment jumped on a loose ball in Warriors’ territory and after some lanky strides into open space he surprised the keeper with high shot.
“The ball popped up and nobody seemed to want to get it so I was able to come through with it. Everybody was flatfooted so I jumped up and made the rush and put it away,” said Fedunyk, 34.
In previous years the offensively challenged Ranger was the designated header on corner kicks and free kicks.
“I’m going to have more opportunity to attack with my new position. We want to be able to attack up the middle more and that’s the idea of the new system,” Fedunyk said. “I support both sides of the field, but when they’re attacking I’m really not supposed to have to pick somebody up specifically.”
After a slow start the Rangers found their groove offensively and outshot the Warriors by a wide margin.
“We were trying to keep possession a little more than we’re used to and as we got more comfortable you could see we took the game over,” Fedunyk said. “With the new system, getting used to the spacing was different. You can see people are thinking too much instead of just playing.”
Leading up to Keenan’s tally, Austin kept the Rangers in the game with several big stops, including a couple of acrobatic defensive gems off rebounds. The Warriors also rang a ball off the post in the 17th minute.
“If I don’t make those saves it’s 2-0 right away,” Austin said. “There was one where I had to come across the net and you hope you get a body part to it and it stays out and I got lucky.”
After every Rangers’ goal the Warriors were quick to even the score in the 31st, 44th and 74th minutes.
“First goal [on a through ball] I should’ve had. Second one was a beautiful free kick. Third one their guy got open but for the first game that will happen,” said Austin, 32.
In the second half he faced only a couple of shots as the Rangers poured on the pressure.
“The start of the second half was a little weaker than how we finished the first half but once we settled down after the first five minutes it was fine.”
The Rangers are back on the pitch Thursday against DFCA at 7 p.m. at Riel Park.