Coming Up Short: The Harrisburg City Islanders in 2012
In many ways, Saturday night’s playoff loss to Charleston was a microcosm of the Harrisburg City Islanders’ season. Despite opening the game brightly, recording an early goal and dictating play, the City Islanders were not able to sustain their defensive shape or carry possession fluidly. Brian Ombiji buried a Tom Mellor feed in the 16th minute to stake Harrisburg to the lead, but the Battery scored twice late in the first half to steal the momentum. Nicki Paterson tied the match with a penalty kick in the 40th minute before Tony Donatelli finished Jose Cuevas’ feed in first half stoppage time to give Charleston a lead they would not relinquish. The Battery outshot the City Islanders by a large margin and advances to play at Rochester in the USL-PRO semifinals next weekend. A season that began with great optimism and promise ends with frustration and disappointment. Harrisburg advanced to the championship final in 2011 and returned a very talented roster that, frankly, should have finished higher in the league table than sixth place.
Despite the early playoff exit, it was a memorable season for the team and its fans. Harrisburg returned to the postseason for the seventh time in nine seasons and the team continues to locate talented young attackers—Lucky Mkosana (7 g, 2 a), Yann Ekra (6 g, 1 a), Tom Mellor (4 g, 1 a), and Garret Pettis (3 g, 1 a) paced the offense as rookies. Once again, the men in blue received stellar play from their goalkeeper, with Nick Noble recording eight shutouts this season. While injuries often left the club shorthanded, the team’s Major League Soccer affiliate, the Philadelphia Union, loaned several players to Harrisburg, including Antoine Hoppenot, Chandler Hoffman, Greg Jordan, and Jimmy McLaughlin The City Islanders staged another incredible run in the U.S. Open Cup, defeating the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls in matches that went to overtime. Harrisburg twice played their parent club: the first a 3-2 City Islanders win at Hersheypark Stadium, while the second was a 5-2 Open Cup quarterfinal loss to the Union at PPL Park. Despite moments of brilliance from a talented and deep squad, injuries and inconsistent play prevented the City Islanders from reaching their potential. A mere four points separated second from sixth place, and coach Bill Becher knows that his team missed golden opportunities to make this a special season. Here’s a closer look at some of the major stories from 2012:
Most Valuable Player – Andrew Marshall gets our pick for his consistent play while stabilizing the backline. With injuries to Dustin Bixler, Stephen Basso, and Bilal Duckett, plus having to break in rookies Tom Brandt and Greg Jordan, Marshall played a vital role in organizing a defense that registered ten shutouts in all competitions. Marshall logged the second most minutes of any field player, tackled well, and even recorded an assist on the year. As if that wasn’t enough, Marshall’s penalty kick clinched victory against the Revolution in the Open Cup. Noble, Mkosana, Ekra, and Mellor certainly shined for Harrisburg, but nobody was more indispensable than Marshall.
Goal of the Year – Yann Ekra, August 19 at Los Angeles. While there were some beautiful goals scored by the City Islanders in 2012, none were more important than Ekra’s game-winner. Harrisburg needed to defeat the Blues to clinch a playoff berth, and with a scoreless draw in the balance, Ekra coolly finished a Mkosana feed to send the City Islanders to the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons.
Game of the Year – May 29 vs. New England Revolution. This match might be one of the most improbable in American soccer history. The City Islanders entered the match as heavy underdogs, hosting the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer in the U.S. Open Cup. For ninety minutes, the match was even, a scoreless draw, before the Revolution erupted for three goals in the first overtime period. Trailing by three goals with ten minutes remaining against MLS competition presented a seemingly impossible task for Harrisburg. But Brian Ombiji put the club on the board in the 111th minute, and Sainey Touray tallied in the 117th to pull the City Islanders within one. Then, in the waning seconds of overtime, J.T. Noone buried a goalmouth scramble, sending the match to penalty kicks. Nick Noble shined during the tiebreaker, saving Benny Feilhaber’s shot to complete the unthinkable comeback and win the match.
Tale of the Gate – After two years of dwindling crowds, the City Islanders were able to boost their attendance in 2012. An average of 1,452 fans came to the Skyline Sports Complex this season, up from 1,404 last season. Weather again proved problematic for the club, with thunderstorms and searing heat again affecting matches, but despite these factors, the team lags far behind rivals clubs like Orlando (6,604), Rochester (6,268), Wilmington (4,265), Charleston (3,947), and Richmond (2,379). With Pittsburgh opening a new stadium in 2013, the City Islanders need better fan support to remain competitive financially in the USL-PRO.
Looking Ahead to 2013 – What will the City Islanders look like next season? It’s tough to say. Some longtime veterans, such as Dustin Bixler, Brian Ombiji, and Jason Pelletier, will contemplate retirement, while promising youngsters hope to advance in the professional ranks. Considering that Lucky Mkosana was already on the radar of Major League Soccer—he was drafted by the Chicago Fire—he seems a likely candidate for promotion. Yann Ekra and Tom Mellor are two other young players with promising futures that should get an inquiry from MLS or NASL clubs. In addition to turning over the roster, the City Islanders will continue remodeling their home. After upgrading the restrooms and lockers of the Skyline Sports Complex this season, plus removing the football goalposts and expanding the pitch, the team hopes to improve the seating areas. Next season will be the tenth for the Harrisburg City Islanders, so expect the franchise to celebrate its history while continuing to build towards the future.
• Penn State kicked off the 2012 season in style Saturday night, defeating Stetson University 3-0 at Jeffrey Field. Daniel Burnham broke the deadlock in the first half, while Julian Cardona scored twice within a minute in the second half to seal the victory. Emmanuel Martin recorded the shutout although the Nittany Lions did not yield a shot on goal. Penn State hosts Hartford on Monday and Duquesne on Friday. For highlights of the Stetson match, visit this YouTube site.
• The Penn State Lady Lions lost a heartbreaker to defending national champion Stanford 3-2 on Friday night. An overflow crowd of 5,117 packed Jeffrey Field to see the Lady Lions play the top-ranked Cardinal evenly before yielding the winning goal on a corner kick in the 87th minute. Penn State performed well, although one can’t help but wonder why they didn’t place a player on the far post during that final corner kick sequence. While the Lady Lions (2-1 record overall) will be disappointed to lose such a high profile contest, they do so knowing some of their best players weren’t available: Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram are both with the U.S. national team for the U-20 World Cup in China. Hayes registered 31 goals and 8 assists for Penn State in 2011, and she’s continued this torrid pace in China, scoring four goals in two matches for the U.S. Schram notched 12 goals and 12 assists last season, and with these two players due back in Happy Valley by mid-September, the Lady Lions look like national title contenders.
*** City Islanders/Battery photos courtesy Paul Zoeller / postandcourier.com
*** Penn State/Stanford photo courtesy gopsusports.com