For some fans, the early game for Division 1 on Sunday, March 31 may seem like just another in the CSL spring season's early stages between two tough competitors. But for Cedar Star Academy and Lansdowne Yonkers FC, the second and third place teams in D1 respectively, this match represents a major foothold on potential playoff spots.
The Stars, who are seaking their first-ever CSL Division 1 title, currently hold second place in league's top tier with 28 points, at least two games out from the division leading NY Pancyprian Freedoms (34 pts) and at least three games out from both Lansdowne (21 pts) and NY Greek Americans (20 pts). With five games remaining following this one, a win could practically lock CSA into a top two spot while a loss would keep the team at risk of being overtaken in future weeks.
CSA owner & team manager Oliver Papraniku knows just how much three points would mean in this game but also knows he and his squad need to focus on it as a stepping stone.
“This game is very important to both clubs, but we all know that the real games that matter are in the playoffs,” Papraniku said in an email. “Both teams will always be up for this game and it should be a spectacle for soccer fans!”
The last time these two teams met back in October 2018, Lansdowne was in the midst of a unprecedented losing streak. Coming into the game, the defending D1 champion Bhoys had lost five matches across all competitions to CSL teams (regular season, 2019 U.S. Open Cup qualifiers and in the Rapaglia Cup). The loss to CSA, 2-1, kept the team in last place while the victor continued to ride a then five-game winning streak in league play that would reach seven games before ending.
Since then the four-time CSL champions have rebuilt and climbed back up the standings. Yonkers has gone 7 and 1 following the loss to Cedar Star starting with a win, 2-0, over Central Park Rangers Whites the following week. The Bhoys now sit in a precarious position; in the third potential playoff spot but within striking distance of at least two teams (NY Greek Americans & NY Shamrock SC ) with teams like Doxa SC also putting up spring season wins to climb the table.
“Obviously it's essential (that the team) needs to finish in top 4 to qualify for playoffs but the aim is to go on a run and finish as high as possible,” assistant coach Aiden Corr said in a text. “The team needs to get used to winning like the old days and a winning run breeds confidence, which you need to win a CSL Division 1 title.
“Every game is more positive after the shaky start. The players are buying into coach Jim (Kelly’s) philosophy of release the ball quick and keep shape.”
On the goal production side, CSA has the clear edge over Lansdowne. The team has been the second most productive offense in CSL D1 this season (41), only currently surpassed by the division leading Freedoms (42). Christopher Katona and Bledi Bardic have scored 17 and 16 goals respectively so far this season which also leads the top division in goals scored as well.
“In the first half of the season having Bledi up top made a huge difference,” Katona said. “It’s great to have another goal scorer who can score in moments when it’s needed. It made it easier coming from outside right position to join in on the attack. Defenders sometimes couldn’t figure out a strategy to stop our attack.”
For some on the team, including Bledi, the work they’ve done this season may have been the addition their resumes needed. Papraniku mentioned that Bledi, along with six other teammates, were recently signed by the New York Cosmos of the National Premier Soccer League, along with two more who are heading to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls and one to the defending NPSL champion Miami FC.
“It was great to play with some of the players in the Fall season to learn more knowledge from them within the game,” Katona said, who also plays in the NPSL for local Morristown, NJ side FC Motown, which finished as the league runner-up in 2018. “I wish them all the best of success with signing their professional contracts with NY Cosmos. I’ll be their biggest fans - until we play them in NPSL.”
But while Cedar has two high producing Stars, Lansdowne has developed many clutch scoring Bhoys.
The second half of the fall season saw a rise in offense along with the aforementioned success for Yonkers that has continued into the spring. Ovan Oakley has scored four goals in the past two games, including a hat-trick last week against Hoboken FC 1912. Those four alone have tied him with teammate Jack Doherty for the most goals scored this season by any Lansdowne player. The squad is also aided by Dawda Bah, Samuel Gehman, Stephen Elias, Aaron Dennis, and Karim Russell who have all scored two goals each this season along with Doherty who leads the team with three assists.
Corr also believes one of his team’s defenders will play a big role in the match especially.
“Johan Mauritzon will come into his own in the big games,” Corr said. “A real competitor that always ends up on the right side of the ball. He never gets caught out. (He’s a) dogged defender who can play to.”
Both teams will have tough competition on the pitch and not just with each other. Weather reports are calling for rain storms in Mahwah, NJ for the early morning, the same place and time where the game is suppose to kick off. Neither team would ever blame the weather soley for a loss though so it will come down to the 11 on the pitch to determine who walks away with any points.