LAS VEGAS — After an overpowering first half netted two goals, FC Tucson survived a nervy final 40 minutes that included a stoppage-time penalty save by Billy Thompson on Saturday night to secure its first playoff win in club history.
First-half goals by Peter Kelly and Christian Volesky were enough for FC Tucson to defeat L.A. Misioneros FC 2-1 at Peter Johann Memorial Field on the UNLV campus in the first round of the USL Premier Development League playoffs.
In just the second postseason match of the franchise’s three-year history, FC Tucson clearly had control in the first half and found a way to survive in the second half against an L.A. offense that pushed the men in black almost to the breaking point.
“It’s franchise history, our first playoff win. We tried to do it as hard as possible,” FC Tucson coach Rick Schantz said. “I think that it’s something that I’ll never forget, and it’s not going to be our last.”
FC Tucson’s next chance for a playoff win will be Friday, and it could come at home if the team earns the host bid that is still to be determined. The club was hoping to find out today if Kino Sports Complex North Stadium is the site of the Western Conference semifinals and final next weekend.
Thompson’s save in the third minute of stoppage time Saturday night made sure the question of hosting was still worth asking.
After Austin Ledbetter’s contact with Misioneros forward Kyrian Nwabueza in the box resulted in a penalty, Thompson stretched out his 6-foot-6-inch frame while diving to his right and made the save of Nwabueza’s penalty.
“It was kind of read and react,” Thompson said of his save. “I didn’t know I was going right until basically the play started to play out.
“I had to get on the ball really quick. If I held it clean, it might have been that second or two of just relaxing. It kind of forced me to turn it right back on” to not allow any chance of an L.A. follow-up.
After FC Tucson held on for the remaining seconds and the referee blew the final whistle, FC Tucson fans and players ran over to the goal to hug Thompson as a couple L.A. players sank to the ground.
FC Tucson opened the scoring when Kelly fired back in a rebound off a Ricardo Velzaco shot in the 28th minute.
One minute later, the advantage was doubled when Kelly turned into the provider. After Kelly and Brandt played a nice one-two, Kelly slid the ball to Volesky, who slotted it home.
In the final 5:00 of the first half, L.A. pushed forward after watching FC Tucson dominate for most of the first 45 minutes. On the rare occasion when the Misioneros’ counterattack beat the defense, an FC Tucson defensive midfielder tracked back to silence the chance or the L.A. shot would be straight at Thompson.
Former FC Tucson player Saeed Robinson started for the Misioneros and proved to be a real handful down the left side.
“The game plan in first half I thought we executed extremely well,” Schantz said. “I was very surprised to see the Misioneros sit back as much as they did. … We probably took a little more of the play in the first half and so that pinned them back some. I thought the boys responded.”
The L.A. momentum carried over into the second half and the Misioneros made it 2-1 in 49th minute. Chris Smith collected a free kick and passed it to Nwabueze. The Nigerian burst into the box and struck a low ball that got past Thompson.
“The second half we expected them to come after us,” Schantz said. “And that early goal in the second half was a mistake in the midfield, a very uncharacteristic turnover by Velazco, led to that turnover to that counter and they quickly capitalized.
“At 2-1 it was a battle. We probably had a couple more chances. I think we should have put it away at 3-1, but we didn’t and the moment of the match came up.”
Both teams had chances after the goal, including a shot by FC Tucson’s Connor Brandt that had to be cleared off the line by the head of forward Brian Behrad in the 63rd minute.
After surviving and succeeding Saturday night, FC Tucson will now await both its opponent and the site of its next match.