It took AFC Cleveland 87 minutes to get a lead, but when Antonio Manfut scored, it would be the goal to beat Sonoma County Sol FC to win the 2016 National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) National Championship, 4-2. Manfut’s goal was just part of a six-goal thriller, as Sonoma County Sol FC Taylor Varnadore and AFC Cleveland’s Vinny Bell traded two goals each. AFC Cleveland’s Ryder Bell added a fourth in extra time.
“(Tom) Beck got the ball back to me; I took a touch on the inside, beat the defender and took the shot. It hit the inside of the near post and went in,” Manfut said as he relived the winning goal.
AFC Cleveland records their first NPSL title in their fifth year of existence and Sonoma County Sol are runners-up for the second time in four seasons.
“I can’t believe it, it doesn’t feel real,” AFC Cleveland head coach Carter Poe commented about the win. “Sonoma scored in the past few games capitalizing on mistakes, so we wanted to neutralize their best players and our guys fought back.”
For his two equalizing goals, AFC’s Vinny Bell, who has played with the club since their inception, won the Man of the Match award for his pair of equalizing goals.
“It feels great to win the award,” Bell added. “It was a team effort. We have been unbeatable at home and it’s great to get the recognition, but I’m glad we won it.”
At the quarter hour mark, Sonoma County Sol FC took the lead on Varnadore’s header. The California native redirected a long header from a Sonoma corner. As the second ball was headed deeper in the box, Varnadore’s height gave him the advantage and AFC Cleveland’s goalkeeper had no chance, as the ball flew into the top right-hand corner and gave the Sol a 1-0 lead in the 15th minute.
“It was a complete team effort,” Varnadore noted of his team’s performance. “The goal off the corner was being in the right place at the right time. But it’s the ones that we didn’t get tonight are the ones that hurt the most.”
AFC Cleveland equalized in the 31st minute as the team hit four excellent passes on the counterattack to tie the match. However nice the passing and attack was, it was the wizardry of forward Vinny Bell that contributed the most. Getting the ball down the left end of the 18-yard box, Bell took a step inside and ran parallel to the goal, making four defenders miss, then sliding the ball past the diving Sonoma keeper, Sean Taufer. Cleveland had gotten their equalizer and headed into the break even.
“We went down and felt a lot of pressure,” Bell replied. “I just had the right timing and vision, and was able to slide on back post.”
Once again Varnadore would put the Sol ahead. In the 60th minute, the forward received a high, long pass down the middle of the field, controlled it on the run and slit it past the AFC keeper. Varnadore outmuscled his defender and put his right foot into the charge.
“It was a fantastic ball by Justin (Ferreira), and I was just able to get a foot on it,” he added. “To battle like we do and make it this far is unbelievable.”
Sonoma County Sol FC were looking like they could again win in the playoffs on the road, as they beat Chattanooga FC in the national semifinals with two goals in the final 12 minutes in Chattanooga. AFC beat Clarkstown SC Eagles in New Jersey to make the Finals.
Just minutes after the goal, Cleveland forward Bell once again answered a Varnadore goal. From an AFC coroner, David Jordan looped a bouncing ball into the six-yard box, which the Sonoma defense could not clear. Defenders watched as Bell dove and scissor kicked the ball into the net. The championship match was knotted at 2-2 at the 63rd minute.
“There was a great cross into the box and I just saw the ball bouncing in the box and I knew I had to get to it,” Bell continued. “I am just glad we could even it up at that point.”
It looked like the deadlocked struggle would head into overtime, until Manfut’s goal in the 87th minute. Immediately after the goal, Manfut fell to the ground from an injury and would be subbed off. His replacement, Ryder Bell, would then hit on the counterattack and guaranteed the victory with his own goal, Cleveland led 4-2 after two minutes of added time.
The Royals’ win gave Cleveland yet another championship after a 52-year championship drought was broken by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lake Erie Monsters, and UFC heavyweight Stipe Miocic earlier this year.