Eastern Conference CHAMPIONS

Written by Michael Lewis

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Matthew Vowinkel scored in the 117th minute to boost the Long Island Rough Riders to a dramatic 2-1 triumph over the 10-man Seacoast Phantoms in the Eastern Conference final of the USL League Two playoffs at Austin-East Magnet High School on Friday night.

Vowinkel finished a long feed from the right flank by Chris Morandi to lift the Riders to one of their most important wins in their 29-year history.

After Morandi’s pass bounced once, Vowinkel slotted the ball past goalkeeper Jassem Koleilat from close range on the left side for his team-high 14th goal of the season as the Rough Riders reached the league Final Four for the second time in their history. Morandi, who made his League Two debut when he replaced Ryan Carmichael in the 85th minute, had been called up from the Riders Academy for the postseason.

The Rough Riders played the final 12 minutes of the second extratime period with a man advantage after Charlie Sharp, Seacoast’s lone goal-scorer, was assessed his second yellow card of the match for tripping a player in the 108th minute.

Long Island will meet the winner of One Knoxville SC-North Carolina Fusion U23 match here on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.. Those two teams met in the second game of the doubleheader Friday night.

The Riders reached the national semifinals for only the second time since moving to the Premier Development League/USL League Two level in 2007. The Rough Riders reached the final four in 2011, when the team won a club-record 14 games. On Friday, the Rough Riders (14-1-2) equaled that win total, with at least one more game remaining in their season. The League Two finals will be held next weekend.

The result avenged an extratime playoff loss in last year’s conference quarterfinals, when the Phantoms recorded a 2-1 win.

LI had several decent scoring opportunities in the opening 20 minutes. Ryan Carmichael fired a shot from distance just over the crossbar in the seventh minute. Within 58 seconds in the 18th minute, Vowinkel shot wide left from the top of the penalty area before sending his close-range header off a fine cross by Jaden Jayden Reid, right at Koleilat.

Rough Riders goalkeeper Wessel Speel was put to the test in the 38th minute, when he made a kick save on Sharp’s shot from the right side of the box.

After a scoreless opening 45 minutes, both sides found the net in second half.

Seacoast got on the scoreboard first on Sharp’s 62nd-minute penalty kick. The referee ruled that team captain Bjarne Thiesen had fouled Sharp on the top left of the box. Sharp took the ensuing penalty, and he drilled a shot into the right corner while Speel leaped in the opposite direction.

Playing with urgency, the Riders equalized in the 77th minute. Niklas Roessler took a 37-yard free kick that Carmichael headed from point-blank range at the right post to knot things up at 1-1 for his 13th goal of the season.

That was all the scoring during regulation, which set up Vowinkel’s late-match heroics.