Europa League – Playoff Round, Leg 1
I was a bit nervous heading into our first ever continental game. Not so much because of the overwhelming quality of our first opponent but because of the enormity of the occasion and the distance we’d travel. We were drawn as the away team so we traveled nearly 1200 miles to Croatia to face off against HNK Rijeka of the Croatian First Division. Whatever nerves we had in the open were quickly calmed as Fran O’Connor latched onto a nicely centered ball before pivoting away from his defender and slotting home the opening goal only 11 minutes in. We did a good job of playing sound defense and we were able to hit HNK Rijeka on a counterattack less than 5 minutes before the halftime whistle. This time it was fellow striker Roberto Gandola that found the net and we found ourselves staked to a 2-0 halftime lead. It took less than 5 minutes after the restart for Fran O’Connor to bag his brace and the rout was on. We were able to lay back and play defensive football the rest of the way and ended up only allowing 1 shot on target all game. We’ll head into the home leg with a nearly insurmountable 3 away goal advantage.
Europa League – Playoff Round, Leg 2
I really hope this isn’t the continuation of last season’s trend where we had complacency issues. We came in with a commanding 3-0 aggregate lead after the away leg and we looked totally disinterested for long stretches of this game. To be fair, we started six new faces, but I hoped that would encourage those spot starters to perform well given this opportunity. With the home crowd behind us, we did everything we could to switch them off and perhaps get them to boo us. We looked very disjointed on the attack with Fran O’Connor the only regular starter out there, and we limped into halftime with a scoreless draw. It was more of the same uninspired play in the second half and it wasn’t until the final minutes that we managed to score. Saul rifled in a throw from the sideline and Lewis jumped up to make a play on the ball. It looked like he missed it completely, but the replay showed that he barely got his head on the ball – just enough to direct it into the goal.
Despite the difficulties, we managed to get the win and advance into the next round of the Europa League. Our first ever continental game at home drew a capacity crowd that broke the record for highest attendance (21793) and highest gate receipts (1.3m). We head into the group stages now, drawn against Sporting (POR), Dynamo Kyiv, and sc Heerenveen. Can we get out of the group? Maybe.
Europa League – Group Stage
Scalp? Maybe a slight one because we traveled to NSC Olympiyskyi and came out victorious. We played the role of bad houseguests perfectly, with Fran O’Connor slotting home just before the 10 minute mark. Then just past the half hour mark we surrendered a penalty, but Dynamo Kyiv went wide on the attempt. That gave us confidence as we headed into halftime with a 1-0 lead. Just past the hour mark, however, Kyiv made good on a crossing attempt and headed home for the tying goal. Not 10 minutes later, Ian Lewis repaid the favor by towering home a header of his own that turned out to be the game winner. We had a chance to really put the game away only a few minutes later but we were denied a pretty obvious penalty kick.
This gives us a huge opening win in group play that puts us in good position to finish 2nd and advance out of group play. Sporting handled sc Heerenveen 3-1 so they sit in 1st place due to goal differential. We host Sporting next, and any kind of result there would be a monumental step toward heading onto the knockout stages.