National Championship Match Preview

Written by Michael Lewis

The Long Island Rough Riders are ready to make history yet again on Saturday night.

Not only are they aiming to win their third national championship in their 29-year history, but they also hope to accomplish the feat by winning their fifth consecutive playoff game on the road.

The Rough Riders will meet the Ventura Fusion in the USL League Two final in Ventura, Calif. at 10 p.m. ET. on Saturday.

“It’s why you play soccer, it is to play in finals and win trophies,” head coach Tom Bowen said. “It’s been two decades since the Rough Riders had this chance. It’s the first time since turning non-professional they have this chance.

“Considering the other teams we are up against, it’s some achievement to get this far. But now that we’re here, we’re not just happy to be here. We’re going to win the game. With the group that we have, the personality and character that we have. I’m confident that we can bring it home.

“But it’s on the road again. It would be five playoff wins in a row on the road to make it happen. When the odds are against us, I think this is when this team is at its best.”

Long Island has two national championships under its belt, having captured the 1995 U.S. Interregional Soccer League crown and the 2002 USL Pro League title.

The Riders (15-1-2), who finished second in the Metropolitan Division, have enjoyed a marvelous postseason run. They began with a 3-1 win over the Ocean City Nor’easters in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in Newport News, Va. on July 22. They continued it with a 2-1 result over Vermont Green FC in the conference semifinals in Newport News on July 24. In the conference final in Knoxville, Tenn. on July 29, LI defeated the Seacoast United Phantoms, 2-1.

The team clinched a spot in the final with a 2-0 triumph over North Carolina Fusion U-23 in the national semifinals in Knoxville on Aug. 1.

“It was a crazy few days in Tennessee,” Bowen said.

Indeed, it was.

Just getting that game played was difficult enough. Due to lightning delays, the Sunday national semifinals were pushed back five times by game officials before they decided to push back the kickoff to Monday at 10 a.m.

“I was consistently saying to people in charge [that] it’s getting we could stay here until 1 a.m., 2 a.m., waiting kickoff, which I think they wanted to do. We’d have to come back at eight or 9 for a 10 o’clock kickoff. If you want us to play in the morning, let the guys go back and sleep. I think common sense prevailed and they allowed us to do so.

“We got back to the hotel. We were able to get some sleep. Maybe the extra night rest is good again because we played extra time a couple days before.”

Despite the early rising for Monday’s playoff match, the Rough Riders went out and recorded a comprehensive 2-0 win over North Carolina.

“The performance was probably the best performance I have ever been involved in soccer, from start to finish,” Bowen said. “Every single player that stepped foot on the field was unbelievable against one of the best teams in the country if not the best.”

Bowen wasn’t finished.

“Year after year they were national finalists,” he said. “We had to be comfortable with them having the ball, be super disciplined defensively and not give up any space and allow them to have the ball. We chose our moments of when to try to press and when to counterattack. We were excellent on set pieces again. … They had possession, but I don’t remember our goalkeeper making a big time save. Credit to the defenders and midfielders and everyone to keep them off the board.”

There were other obstacles to overcome as well.

Only an hour prior to Sunday’s original kickoff, Long Island was told it couldn’t use midfielder Jamie DiLuzio because he played for North Carolina in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match earlier this year. Player eligibility in one competition traditionally doesn’t affect another.

So, not surprisingly, it surprised Bowen.

“This player was in our starting lineup,” he said. “We had to pivot and get a new player into the starting lineup. He was a high-level player and deserved a chance to play anyway, just another example of how the odds are against you. Overcoming adversity just seems what this group does week in and week out.”

The Rough Riders plan on leaving for California early Friday morning.

“It’s a little bit easier just knowing that you’re going to one game rather than the uncertainty whether will it be one or will it be two,” Bowen said. “We’re going to leave on Thursday. With the time difference, we should get there early, a chance to relax, unpack and maybe go for a walk or even train on the game field. Friday evening, we have a national banquet, which will be a nice experience.”

Ventura County (8-2-2) finished second in the Southwest Division before enjoying its postseason success.

“I’ve already started looking at them,” Bowen said. “We’ll do our homework as best as possible. It’s tough. They’re at opposite ends of the country. So don’t too much about them. I haven’t come across them before in terms of a head-to-head matchup. But luckily with technology, streams and film, we can figure out as much as possible and we’ll make a plan accordingly.

“I’m excited. I’m confident in the group. If we show up and play to our potential, there’s no reason we can’t win the game.”


Don’t miss out on exciting club news, ticket offers, program discounts and more!


Don’t miss out on exciting club news, ticket offers, program discounts and more!