Los Angeles Soccer: Peter Byers
The L.A. Blues' penchant for falling behind, and for coming from behind, were on full display Friday night in Wilmington, N.C., as the West Coast's only USL Pro side began its final road trip of the regular season.
That they couldn't hold onto the point was just one more disappointment in a season that's wobbled between good and bad -- and already has been rewarded with a playoff berth.
Andriy Budnyy's was-it-cheeky-or-unintentional clip over goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh in the 78th minute lifted the Hammerheads to a playoff-clinching 2-1 victory over the Blues before a club-record crowd of 5,783. Manny Guzman, left alone on a corner kick, provided Wilmington (13-6-3) a 31st-minute lead, and Peter Byers scored a fine goal from Josh Tudela's long ball to bring L.A. (8-6-7) even in the 62nd.
The Blues, who are chasing Rochester (11-7-4) and Harrisburg (9-6-7) in the National Division, play Sunday at Antigua Barracuda (8-13-2), then finish up next weekend with games against Richmond at Cal State Fullerton and Norco College.
L.A., playing a brutal 11-games-in-one-month schedule to close the regular season, have won just once in five games, and chemistry rather than weariness might be the prime culprit. There have been many roster changes, especially up top, with Antiguan star Byers, Mexican youngster Jonathan de Leon and now Armenian attacker Artur Aghasyan added to a multinational corps during the summer transfer window.
The marathon series between the L.A. Blues and Antigua Barracuda ended on even terms, with Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Palisades High School following two 2-1 decisions, the first to the islanders and the second to the Blues.
Three meetings in five days might be unprecedented in professional soccer, but the elimination of three Puerto Rico-based clubs early in the season caused havoc to the USL Pro schedule. It's why the Blues are amid an 11-games-in-a-month finish to the regular season -- and why they'll never play Rochester, the top team in their division, until, perhaps, the playoffs.
Defensive errors cost the Blues (8-5-7) this time, with Elvis Thomas forcing a giveaway and depositing it for an Antigua lead in the eighth minute and two dropped balls by reserve goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh almost leading to goals, too.
Peter Byers scored for the Blues, his second goal in as many games against his former club, nodding home a Carlos Borja cross that Akeem Priestley headed onto his path in the 23rd minute.
As the L.A. Blues struggled through a dark stretch as June turned to July, an answer to their problems sat on the sideline, waiting for the summer transfer window to open.
It did, Antiguan forward Peter Byers -- a major contributor not so long ago for the Major League Soccer-bound Montreal Impact -- became eligible, and his blisterintg speed and precise touch had immediate effect, even if he wasn't putting the ball into the net.
Byers scored his first goal for the Blues on Sunday afternoon, and it delivered a 2-1 victory over his former team, Antigua Barracuda FC, at Norco College, a pivotal triumph if L.A. is going to catch Harrisburg or Rochester for one of the top two spots in the USL Pro's National Division.
Byers, 26, scored in the 39th minute to extend the Blues' advantage to two goals, enough to secure their first home win over Antigua in three tries. They'll look to make it two in a row in the third meeting in five days Tuesday evening in Pacific Palisades.
Jamaican forward Akeem Priestley also scored for the Blues (8-5-6), who clinched a playoff berth with the victory. They sit third in their division with 30 points, seven behind the first-place Rochester Rhinos (11-6-4) and three in back of the Harrisburg City Islanders (9-6-6).
The Blues have five regular-season games to go and need to catch the City Islanders, or they'll be at a disadvantage in a home-and-home first-round series -- likely against Harrisburg.
The Blues (7-4-6) extended their unbeaten streak to four games heading into a three-game set next weekend and the following Tuesday in Southern California against stumbling Antigua Barracuda, which has lost seven in a row.
L.A., which won Friday at Richmond, is third in the National Division, six points behind first-place Rochester (10-6-3) and three in back of Harrisburg (8-5-6).
Jason Pelletier gave the City Islanders a 19th-minute lead, scoring directly from a 45-yard free kick. Rivera brought the Blues even just before halftime, finishing from Peter Byers' feed.
Harrisburg had opportunity to win, but Sainey Touray hit the crossbar in the 65th minute and Akwari cleared an Anthony Calvano header off the line at the finish.
Byers was red-carded in the 65th minute after inadvertently elbowing an opponent in the head.
The L.A. Blues finally found their way out of a funk Sunday, but, of course, not until they'd conceded an early lead. That surely would have cost them points the last few weeks, but not this time.Cesar Rivera scored two more goals, the second on a penalty kick, and the Blues (6-4-5) won a USL Pro game for the first time since May, routing the league-worst Dayton Dutch Lions, 4-1, at Norco College.
It ended a six-game winless streak, all competitions, and tightened the race in the National Division, in which L.A. is seven points behind the Rochester Rhinos (9-6-3) and three behind the Harrisburg City Islanders (7-5-5). The Blues next weekend play at American Division power Richmond (10-5-3) and Harrisburg.
The Blues played at Norco, their new Inland Empire home, for the second time -- they beat Hollywood United in a U.S. Open Cup opener last month at the college -- and have to like it more than primary home Cal State Fullerton, where they are 0-4-1 in league and cup play.
What he didn't provide was a goal, although he played a part in the sequence that led to Cesar Rivera's 93rd-minute penalty kick to secure a 1-1 draw with the lowly Dayton Dutch Lions in a nationally televised game at Cal State Fullerton.
Rivera, racing into the box to latch onto a Chukwudi Chijindu feed, was taken down in the Dutch Lions' box by Luke Magill nearly two minutes into stoppage. His fifth USL Pro goal of the season extended the Blues' winless streak to six games in all competitions but ended a four-game losing streak at Titan Stadium, including the U.S. Open Cup loss to the Galaxy.
The Blues (5-4-5), who are third in the National Division, are 0-4-1 in all games at their primary home. They'll take on Dayton again Sunday at Norco College.
Byers, who made his name with the Montreal Impact in the old USL First Division and started this season with USL Pro side Antigua Barracuda, signed June 2 with the Blues. Technicalities prevented him from being eligible to play for the Blues until the summer transfer window opened Friday.
Dayton (1-10-3), which has tied its last three games, scored on its only shot of the game, with George Davis IV beating Blues goalkeeper Oscar Dautt from a tight angle in the seventh minute. The Dutch Lions bunkered the rest of the way, absorbing extraordinary pressure before surrendering the penalty at the end.
Blues captain Josh Tudela departed in the first half with an ankle injury.
There's a new boss in the W-League's Western Conference, and it's not any of the expected contenders.
Second-year Santa Clarita Blue Heat leapt atop the standings with two impressive wins last week, surging ahead with a 5-2 romp over a stacked Vancouver Whitecaps team.
Portuguese star Edite Fernandes' quality has helped transform Blue Heat (4-0-1), an also-ran in year one, into an attacking giant, with 15 goals in the past three games. The Whitecaps (4-1-1), who arrived for a three-game L.A. trip looking a good bet to repeat as conference champ, had conceded just three goals in their first five games.
Englishwoman Stacey Rodwell, who played at Cal State L.A., had three assists Sunday against Vancouver -- two on Fernandes goals -- after setting up Fernandes in a 3-0 win Friday over the Seattle Sounders.
Colorado Rush (4-1-0) is one point behind Blue Heat and Vancouver.
Two-time W-League champ Pali Blues (3-0-2), which drew with Vancouver and beat Seattle, is the only other unbeaten side in the West. They played a scoreless draw with Santa Clarita on May 26 and meet again in a regular-season finale July 17 at Canyon High School in Canyon Country.
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Byers, 26, who played three seasons with second-tier side Montreal Impact before returning home last year, scored four goals in seven games this season for Blues rival Antigua Barracuda, all against Puerto Rico United.
The speedy forward's contract with Barracuda was for just a month, and the Blues leapt at the chance to bring him in when they discovered he was available.
“After [our] game at Antigua in mid-April, some of our players told me about him,” Blues coach Charlie Naimo said in a statement. “I guess he had spoken to them and mentioned that he was interested in joining the team. I reached out to him the next day, but before I heard back, I saw a press release that he had signed with Antigua. So we figured that would be his club for the whole season.
“Then, a couple of days after we played Antigua at home in early May, I got an email from his agent telling me that it was only a one-month contract. Of course, we immediately responded that we were interested, and after pursuing him for a little while, we came to an agreement. We’re extremely excited about his acquisition because we think Peter is a great fit for the team.”
Charlie Naimo spoke last week to the importance of first impressions, and when his L.A. Blues finally got to make one, the message came garbled.
There was plenty of good but much too much that wasn't in the club's home opener Sunday, a 1-0 USL Pro defeat to Antigua Barracuda before a small but appreciative crowd at Cal State Fullerton.
The Blues (3-1-1) lacked sharpness in Barracuda's box without late scratch Walter Gaitan, who failed a pregame fitness test after tweaking a quad muscle last week, and suspended forward Cesar Rivera and got far too little from their overwhelming advantage in possession.
Barracuda (4-2-0), which overtook L.A. atop the third-tier USL Pro's International Division standings, was content to sit back -- but with a high and effective restraining line -- and counter, and forward Peter Byers might have had a hat trick, or more, had he finished as well as he beat defenders.
Stefan Smith scored the goal, in the 24th minute, knocking home a rebound after a giveaway by Nelson Akwari led to a Lawson Robinson shot, but the Blues surely would have prevailed with better precision in the final pass or finish.
“We were good at the things Walter would've helped us be good at, which was keeping possession and creating chances,” said Naimo, the Blues' head coach and vice president. “Cesar's that guy that if we had high amongst [Barracuda's] backline … [he's] so strong on the ball, you get him that ball in those areas, central, he's gonna turn you, he's gonna spin you, and he's also extremely creative. I think he would have made a difference.
“Obviously, Walter could have made a difference. But you know what? At the end of the day, whatever we had on the field tonight, I thought the guys did a good job. We lacked efficiency in the final ball, whether it was the service or the finish. We created some beautiful chances tonight.
“It had to be a great game to watch, but, obviously, you come up short, you come up short.”
OPENING NIGHT: The crowd count was 696, which is smaller by 7,157 than the gathering that saw the Blues' second team, playing in the lesser Premier Development League, in Fresno on Friday night.