February 24, 2023: US Futsal Northeast Championship - Atlantic City Convention Center
It was not an easy road for the Safira men. For the last four years at regionals, Safira had advanced to the knockout rounds only to lose in the semifinals. However, there was a general sense that this year was different. Safira coach, Junior Panta explained, "After playing and winning so many regionals in the past, we knew the expectations and pressure, along with the challenges. We were ready this year."
Twenty-eight teams competed in the men's 2023 US Futsal Northeast Championship Open Bracket. Seven groups of four teams battled in the group stage for a spot in the quarterfinals. With only one wild card spot available, the safest route to ensure advancing was go undefeated in your group.
Safira did just that with victories over Ukrainian Nationals Futsal (5-0), Manhattan Kickers FC (4-2) and Baltimore Kings (3-0), thus securing a spot in the quarterfinals.
"We were placed in a really hard bracket, but we persevered and played three really strong games," stated Safira owner and coach Andre Ferreira.
Safira veteran player and leader, Alencar Ventura "Junior" added, "Everyone on the team was very focused. We have a great group of guys - great players and great people both on and off the court. It was this connection that made us grow stronger and stronger as a team with each game."
They needed that belief in each other and the confidence to come out victorious in the knockout rounds of the tournament, as they had to preserve and come from behind in several matches.
In the quarterfinals, Safira faced one of the toughest teams in the tournament, So Tapa Futsal. This was a high-intensity match - with two minutes remaining in a 2-2 game, So Tapa was awarded a free kick. Safira keeper, Parick Vilela, charged the kick and was able to deflect it wide, keeping the match tied and forcing overtime. (Video below).
The game remained tied through the first overtime period. With just one minute and five seconds remaining, Safira's #12 Mario Santos netted a goal assisted by #4 Alencar Ventura "Junior". (Video below) Shortly after, Junior then iced the game with a chipped goal, to make it 4-2.
"No matter what the situation we faced, we kept our composure and game plan the whole time. We trusted the Safira system." explained Safira coach, Junior Panta.
In the semifinals, Safira advanced to play Atletico Colombia Futsal. Atletico was the top scoring team from the group stages netting 21 goals. This game pitted several USSF Futsal teammates against each other. Fans from both teams knew this was going to be a good match.
Atletico's roster contained several familiar Mass Soccer players. Chris Moura from Providence City FC turned in another stellar performance in net. Wilder Arboleda (Providence City/Brockton FC) played quality minutes and impacted the match. Manny Andrade (Brockton FC) coached the team. These were two futsal powerhouses that knew each other well. For a clear indication of the talent showcased in this match, one could look across at the scorer's table and see the USSF National Futsal Coaches scouting the match.
#4 Junior led Safira scoring with two goals in regulation. Junior's USSF teammate and Atletico opponent, Wilder, added two of his own. Joseano Taveres, and Nana Zapata each added a goal for Atletico. At the end of regulation, the game stood tied 4-4.
The first half of overtime yielded no goals for either side. It was Safira who broke through in the closing minutes of the second overtime period of the match. In a quick transition off an Atletico rebounded shot, Safira moved the ball up the left sideline, went cross court, and then passed the ball central to #10 Marcelo Matos. Matos both started the counterattack and then netted the game winning goal. (See below).
In the tournament final, Safira faced Jaguars United. The Jaguars took the floor in a compact defense to keep Safira off the board. They had success with this plan, holding Safira scoreless through the first half.
Four minutes into the second half, the Jaguars entered the Safira zone. The Jaguars' player lifted a pass over the Safira defender and then #7 from the Jaguars chipped a shot over the approaching Safira goalie. The ball hit the inside of the far post and bounced in for a Jaguars' goal. (Minute 23:58 of the YouTube video linked below).
With 11 minutes remaining, Safira goalie countered with a long throw to Junior, who had only one defender back to beat. The defender fouled Alencar, taking him down and unable to attack, thus drawing a red card.
The Jaguars, a man down, continued to defend brilliantly keeping Safira scoreless through the penalty period.
With just three minutes remaining in the match, Safira equalized. Safira's #8 Junior Ferreira and #4 Alencar Ventura Junior set up a give and go which concluded with a sliding goal from Ferreira.
With six seconds remaining, Safira was awarded a kick and Alencar Ventura Junior stepped to take the kick in. His first attempt was blocked by the Jaguars and deflected out of bounds. The clock ticked down 1 more second. On his second attempt, he rolled the ball to #10 Matos who drove in a low back post shot. The goalie being partially screened did not see it until it hit the back corner of the net.
As time expired, the Safira celebration erupted.
"When we lacked legs and air to play, we stuck together as a family. We supported each other and played our hearts out, believing that we could win," Safira Coach Junior Panta explained.
"The final was tough. The Jaguars focused on defense the whole game. I was happy the way our team responded and performed. They found a way to move the ball around and find space." commented Safira coach, Andre Ferreira. "We were also so proud to have four of our 2005 Boys Academy players step up and play with the men's team. We continue to build the Safira Futsal Family and our next generation of men's players."
Congratulations to the Safira organization.