PRESCOTT, AZ — The Monroe Mustangs men’s soccer team finally ran into an obstacle they couldn’t overcome in the NJCAA Men’s Division I National Championships that was held this week in Prescott, AZ. And that was a controversial red card issued in the 40th-minute of the finals that forced the Mustangs to play a man short for more than half of the game – fifty minutes. Despite their best efforts that included a goal in the 77th minute that halved the score and two quality chances to tie it in the final minute, the #10-seeded Mustangs dropped the championship to the #4 seeded Tyler Apaches, 2-1. The disappointing finish ended Monroe’s remarkable season at 13-4-1.
“Credit Tyler for winning the national championship,” Coach Marcus Dibernardo told reporters after the game. “They’re a good team and did well and there’s no denying that they’re a soccer powerhouse in the NJCAA.”
The Apaches scored first in the game, putting one to the left of freshman keeper Kenneth Caballero in the 36th minute.
Soon after, the red card was issued to Monroe freshman Mamdou Balde on a foul that had Mustang coaches and players, officials on the sidelines, and many fans scratching their heads. Balde had taken the legs out of a Tyler player at midfield, barely tipping the ball in the process. Though the Tyler player jumped right up uninjured, the referee wordlessly pulled out the red and banished Balde from the field, changing the course of the championship in the process.
“The red card changed the game,” Coach ‘D’ said. “It is what it is, but sometimes when you get a red card, especially in a big game, that’s a factor in deciding the game. The effort we put out when you know you’re with only ten men, our kids were unbelievable. But that’s to take no credit away from Tyler. They were a great team.”
Tyler added a goal right after the half in the 49th minute, making Monroe’s climb even harder if they wanted to become national champions for the first time in their history.
But the Mustangs didn’t quit. With the clock showing 13:01 remaining, sophomore Tarek Beckles blasted one in to cut the lead to one goal. And then in the last 60-seconds of the game Monroe had two clean shots on goal that were saved.
“We don’t have quit in us,” the coach said. “When you’re down 2-0 with ten men, it’s so easy to pack up and call it a day. But we didn’t call it a day and with the crowd behind us we almost scored the equalizer within the last three minutes. That says a lot about our character.”
Monroe came into the tournament as the #10-seed in a pool along with #3 Louisburg and #6 Northeast Texas. Forced to play two days in a row at 9:30am each morning, the Mustangs managed a 1-1 tie against Louisburg and a 3-0 win against the Eagles. That goal differential was crucial as it forced the Hurricanes to defeat Texas by that margin, which they did not do.
In the semifinal, Monroe was again matched up with a tough opponent, Iowa Western, the tournament’s top-seeded defending champions. Monroe won that 4-3 on PK’s to advance to the Saturday’s final.
“Let’s face it we never had an easy game in this tournament,” the coach said. “We came in as a #10 seed and we had to play the toughest teams in the tournament.”
“This a program that’s built on passion and we have passion about this game and we try to become better people by doing the best we can at playing this game,” he said, “and that’s why we’re so big on sportsmanship and why we’re so big on controlling our emotions. For the student athletes involved in this tournament, it builds their character and they come away as better people if you do it in the right way. A week from now the kids are going to be very proud of their accomplishments, overcoming so much and finishing as national finalists. It’s something we can all be very proud of.”
Freshmen Khadim Seye and Lucas Santos were named to the All-Tournament team.