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November 13, 2015
LIU men overcome St. Francis in a shootout in NEC semifinals

By Michael Randazzo
Special to

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The magical season by LIU Brooklyn men survived 110 minutes of contentious play — including two extratime periods — a red card and a shootout Friday night.

Raffi Gregorian converted a penalty kick to give the Blackbirds the win via a 4-3 shootout victory over playing to a 1-1 tie with St. Francis Brooklyn in the semifinals of the Northeast Conference Championship.

With the win — the team’s 10th straight — host LIU advanced to its first NEC championship since 2004. At noon Sunday the Blackbirds will face St. Francis University (Pa)., a 2-1 winner over Robert Morris earlier in the day.

Logan Keys, the NEC’s top goalkeeper in wins, save percentage and goals against, denied two Terriers during the shootout, a fitting climax to a physical contest between two longtime rivals who last met in the NEC tournament in 1997. That encounter also was won by LIU.

The match started off disastrously for the home team. At the six-minute mark, with St. Francis fans strolling in after a 10-minute walk from their Brooklyn Heights campus, Adrian Cosovic took advantage of confusion in front of the LIU net to put home a header, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead.

For next 15 minutes the Terriers pressed their advantage, as their speedy attack, anchored by Yussuf Olajide, John Makaya and Cosovic, put sustained pressure on the LIU defense.

At 19:26 LIU’s Naeem Charles changed the game. His free kick from just outside of the St. Francis box brilliantly curled around the Terriers’ defensive wall and eluded both goalkeeper Jack Binks and the left post, knotting the score at 1-1.

Energized by Charles’ goal, the Blackbirds stepped up their play, with Rasmus Hansen, Simen Hestnes and Charles creating scoring opportunities, much to the delight of LIU’s fans.

Animosity between the two teams was on constant display throughout the first half. Minutes after Charles’s equalizer, St. Francis’s Fabian Suele took exception to a punt by Keys and pushed him to the ground. The LIU keeper was a repeated target of Terrier aggression. Just before halftime Dominick Falanga submarined Keys as he went up for a shot, resulting in yet another scrum and a yellow card for Keys.

The second half saw a relative relaxation of hostilities, as the host Blackbirds enjoyed the better of play. In the 72nd minute, Romario Guscott, who came on at forward for LIU after intermission, combined with Charles on a beautiful scoring chance that Guscott shot just over the St. Francis crossbar.

With Binks and Keys keeping their respective nets clean, the game moved onto extratime.

The extra periods saw a resumption of chippy play, as the pressure of a possible golden goal finish led to repeated pushing and shoving by both teams. Halfway into the first extratime Erik Wahlin’s hard tackle on SFC’s Olajide earned the LIU defender a red card.

Despite being a man up, the Terriers could not convert. Three minutes after Wahlin’s ejection, Cosovic missed a prime opportunity in front. With a minute to go in the second extratime, Falanga could not thread a pass to Federico Curbelo, poised in front of the LIU goal.

It was during penalty kicks that Keys, second to Binks on the NEC All-Conference depth charts, proved that he was most deserving of the nod as the conference’s top keeper. The red-shirt junior rightly guessed that Cyril Coisne would shoot left, and pushed St. Francis’s first attempt wide.

LIU’s Hansen converted his attempt, as did the Terriers’ Lukas Hauer. After the Blackbirds’ Filip Nordstrom hit the crossbar, Vincent Bezecourt put St. Francis up 2-1. Tanner Sica’s goal pulled LIU even, but Curbelo converted to put the visitors up 3-2. Christoffer Solbakken scored to make it 3-all, Then came Keys’ signature moment, as he punched away Falanga’s shot, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.

Up stepped Gregorian. The senior from Houston, who came on in the first overtime, carefully dressed the ball before calmly striking it past a diving Binks. Bedlam erupted on the field as a moving scrum of white shirts engulfed the 5-6 midfielder, a celebration a decade in the making.

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