HORSHAM TWP., Pa. — For the second straight game, the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals needed a strong second half to overcome an early deficit to stay unbeaten and top of the table in the Keystone Conference of the National Premier Soccer League.
Hershey FC came to town for a mid-week clash Wednesday night and was on the front foot early, nearly finding an opener early on a shot from John Axtman that just missed wide of the post.
“I thought we made it difficult for him, I thought we you know disrupted the flow of play didn’t allow them to get into a rhythm,” Hershey FC coach Demetrios Papadopoulos said.
The early breakthrough would come from Alexei King who was all alone in the box when he received the ball and had his initial shot attempt saved by Justin Grady. Grady got a hand on the put-back but wasn’t able to keep it out of the net.
Up 1-0, Hershey FC kept forcing the issue and looked poised to add a second — hitting the crossbar in one instance — before Matt Harmon ripped a shot to tie the game up in the 27th minute.
“We were giving the ball away a lot, unforced errors and things like that, which isn’t like us,” Ukrainian Nationals co-head coach Mike Gorni said. “Matty Harmon got a really important goal, one that makes a difference and we just felt really confident from that.”
Coming out of the halftime talk, the Ukies were a much different team in the second half, putting the Hershey FC defense on their heels early on and drawing fouls in dangerous areas in the final third.
Carter Houlihan stepped up and quickly turned one of those dead ball chances into the eventual game-winner in the 51st minute.
“When the whistle blew, I saw the goalkeeper still on his post,” Houlihan said. “So I knew they weren’t gonna be ready and instinct just kind of came in and you know, I kicked it and he wasn’t ready and it went in.”
Josh Jones, who has been training with the Philadelphia Union’s reserve team since impressing in a 1-0 win in a friendly against them two Sundays ago, nearly connected on a couple other dead balls, but hit the top of the crossbar on one chance and the right post on another.
“I think we controlled the ball a lot more than we did in the first half,” Jones said. “We were able to penetrate them through the middle a lot better than we did in the first half.”
Houlihan would seal the victory in the 65th minute on a penetrating run he was able to finish off by beating Hershey keeper Alex Magrel on the shot. Magrel stepped up with a couple saves in the half after subbing on at halftime to deny the hosts a wider margin of victory.
“Carter does what Carter does,” Gorni said of his star attacker’s second goal. “There’s just really not much you can do when he keeps the ball that tight, makes that kind of run and has a clinical finish like that.”
Gorni said Wednesday’s win — coming after a game against Philadelphia Lone Star they trailed 2-0 in the first half — shows that the team can still find ways to win when they aren’t at their best.
“We’ve had two games where we just were not on our A game in the first half,” Gorni said. “And then we needed to play and we settled in.”
The Ukies improve to 6-0-0 to start the season — their inaugural NPSL campaign — with the win ahead of a showdown at home on Father’s Day Sunday against second place Electric City Shock FC (kickoff 4:30 p.m.). Just two points separates the two unbeaten teams. Electric City dropped points in a 2-2 draw with West Chester United.
Ukrainian Nationals are one of only three teams in NPSL left with a perfect record this season. Muskegon Risers are 4-0-0 and Cleveland SC is 4-0-0.