Head coach Paul Winstanley had every right to be feeling a little nervous as he watched his Joel Barlow boys soccer team shuffle through a lackluster pre-game warmup prior to Monday afternoon’s Class L state tournament game against Darien.
The unbeaten Falcons were coming off their first South-West Conference championship since 2008, taking the field for the first time in six days after receiving a first-round bye, and playing a team — the over-achieving 18th-seeded Blue Wave — no one expected to be here at this point in the season.
All the ingredients were in place for a classic letdown.
“There was a big concern for a letdown,” Winstanley said. “Our sessions had been average at best, and we had a big layoff, almost a full week. So I was very concerned.”
However, as Darien quickly discovered, there is simply no let-up in the Falcons.
Barlow hit the Blue Wave with rare mixture of extreme talent and unselfish ball control, dominating from start to finish to post an easy 5-0 victory in an early-afternoon matchup in the second round of the Class L tournament.
Barlow (16-0-3), which will face seventh-seeded Hand of Madison (14-3-1) in the quarterfinals at 2-p.m. Tuesday in Redding, moved the ball with precision through the midfield behind the patient and poised play of senior Christian Miljkovic and junior Peter Gaffney.
That produced a 26-2 advantage in shots and a 7-4 edge in corner kicks. After missing from a number of angles early in the first half, the Falcons also displayed the ability to put the ball in the net, getting two goals and an assist from sturdy junior Will Bracken and one goal and one assist each from Miljkovic and senior forward Dante Spinelli.
Senior defender Finn Cohane also scored on a corner kick and senior Tim Eng added two assists for the Falcons, who led 2-0 at halftime and finished the shutout with three tallies in the second half.
After winning the SWC Patriot division title, then edging Brookfield on penalty kicks to claim the conference championship, the Falcons seem to be on the right path to add a state title to its collection. It would be the first for this once juggernaut program since 2007.
“We haven’t won it in a long time, and we want both. We want the SWC championship and the Class L championship,” Miljkovic said. “We want it bad. I really think we can make some noise."
Darien (9-8-1), a defensive-minded team which lost in the state quarterfinals last fall after putting together one of the best seasons in program history, didn't match up well with Barlow in the first place. After losing its best player — senior center midfielder Brennan Branca — with an ankle injury during a 4-0 victory over rival New Canaan in the first round, Darien was left totally out of sorts.
Unable to counter-attack Barlow’s ball control, the Blue Wave managed just one shot on goal in each half, producing only one quality scoring chance in 80 minutes of play. Darien couldn’t even get off a shot on any of its four corner kicks as the height and quickness of Barlow goalie Peter Cohen kept the ball from getting to either the ground or someone’s head.
“They were definitely the better side,” Darien head coach Jon Bradley said. “But when you take away our best player, it really changes things. It made it easier for them to move the ball from side-to-side. But they’re a good team. Hats off to them.”
Bradley still feels good about what the Blue Wave was able to accomplish this season after losing a majority of the starters from last year’s breakout team.
“If anything, I think we over-achieved this season,” Bradley said. “I give credit to our kids, to win nine games with six kids who play soccer all year round. We’re trying to change the culture in Darien and trying to get them to be more passionate about soccer. I think we’re on the right track.”
The first goal of the game showed what the Falcons are all about. Barlow gained control deep in the defensive end and methodically worked it up the field, snapping passes back and forth for almost two minutes. When it was time to strike, the Falcons made it look easy.
Senior defender Conn Curry made a run up the right side and Gaffney hit him in stride. Curry stopped and sent a pass back into the middle of the field. Bracken gained control, and instead of turning for a shot of his own, deftly touched a pass through a seam back in the defense to the right side and Miljkovic buried it past Darien goalie Jack Fisher (8 saves) for a 1-0 lead with 22:24 left in the first half.
Eleven assists could have been given out on the play because everyone on the field touched the ball leading up to the goal.
“That’s what we do,” Winstanley said. “They don’t have a choice if you want to get on the field. We have a little saying we put on a shirt. We put the BAR in capitals and underneath we put Barcelona because we try to play a style similar to them. That’s what we do. It doesn’t guarantee wins, but it typically guarantees you’ll dominate possession and generally dominate territory. When you do that, not a lot of bad things can happen to you.”
By sharing the ball so vehemently, the Falcons have formed the type of chemistry seldom seen on this level of soccer.
“We’re always looking to do give-and-go’s and combinations. I think that’s our biggest asset,” Miljkovic said. “We’re always looking around the field, looking behind our backs, making sure we know where our next option is.”
Asked it he has ever seen a team pass the ball so well with this much unselfishness, Miljkovic said, “Barcelona. Compared to us, a high school team, I’ve yet to see it. I’ve seen teams attempt it, but I haven’t seen teams be successful with it.”
Spinelli made it 2-0 with 15:25 left in the first half, converting a pass from Eng off a feed out of the center of the field by Gaffney, and the game was all but over.
Darien had a good chance to score in the sixth minute of the second half, but senior Spencer McMullin sent his shot just over the top of the crossbar.
Barlow then scored three unanswered goals to put the game out of reach. Cohane, who helped keep things clean on the back line along with defenders Atticus Pappalardo and Curry, scored the first one on a corner kick by Miljkovic, running forward and catching the ball in mid-air with his right foot.
Bracken scored 27 seconds later to make it 4-0 then headed in a pass from Eng after Miljkovic played a short ball to the right side on a corner kick.
Barlow will now face its greatest challenge of the tournament against Hand, which defeated No. 23 Lyman Hall 4-0 in the second round and No. 26 Notre Dame-West Haven 6-0 in the opening round.
Hand’s coaching staff was in attendance on Monday. Winstanley scouted the Tigers three times during the regular season, anticipating a meeting with them in the states.
“I believe we’re the two strongest teams in L. That’s just the way the draw fell. It’s too bad it had to be a quarterfinal game,” said Winstanley, whose team has played in Class M for seven of his nine years as head coach. “Avon is good and Bethel from our league is good. But Hand is the club we always felt was going to be the big game. The way the draw fell, we’ll get it in the quarterfinals. Our only advantage is we get the game here on grass. Maybe that’s a slight advantage for us. We’ll see.”