ROME – New Hartford’s defense came through in Tuesday’s Tri Valley League road game at Rome Free Academy.
The Spartans, led by center-back Matt Chiffy, smothered the Black Knights throughout the 80 minutes, allowing just two shots in a 2-0 victory.
Nick Butler and Caleb Wu scored goals in opposite halves to improve the Spartans to 3-0 in the TVL Colonial Division, while the Black Knights fell to 1-1 in the league.
“The team did a great job today,” Chiffy said. “All four of our starters on defense and the subs that came in … I didn’t see a difference in our play.”
Head coach Jill Davies-Nelson was pleased with the defensive performance in front of keeper Nick Buchholz. The Spartans (3-0, 4-1) worked hard to take away RFA’s space and time to force turnovers and win 50-50 battles.
“We’ve been working on that all year and we’ve had a chance to perfect it,” Davies-Nelson said. “We played CBA and Marcellus this past weekend and they played with a lot of speed so we really did work on tightening up that back four. We knew (RFA) was going to play the long ball so we staggered slightly anticipating that.”
Chiffy, Matt Nerber, Nate Bennett, John Corderio and Oscar Pratt led the way in slowing down RFA attackmen Oliver Dragojevic, Michael Polce and skilled eighth-grade midfielder Amanuel Mellace. Dragojevic scored a hat trick in Monday’s 4-0 win over Central Valley Academy and has a combination of size, speed and skill that can ruin a defensive game plan.
However, every time Dragojevic and the Black Knights’ offense got going, Chiffy and his teammates stepped in to turn them away before any strong scoring chance materialized.
The defense was supported by a strong midfield performance from senior Giovanni Fornino, who helped turn defense into offense.
“I think defensively everyone did a rock-solid job,” Fornino said. “Another strong point was I think everyone gave 100 percent effort, it’s something our coaching staff has instilled in us. We need to work on moving the ball a little faster, but it’s still very early in the season and I think that will come. I think as a team we have tremendous potential.”
Following a sloppy opening 10 minutes by both teams, the Spartans took advantage of RFA’s inability to clear the zone to take the lead. Alex Chiffy took possession on the right wing and centered through the box to Nick Butler, who was all alone about 13 yards out and guided a shot past RFA goalie Chase Coluccio and into the left side of the net for a 1-0 lead just 11:43 into the game.
Led by senior defense Zach Wilbert, RFA’s defense tightened up and limited New Hartford’s chances in what was an even final 25 minutes of the half. The problem was penetrating the Spartans’ defense and getting chances.
“We played well in certain aspects of the game,” Dragojevic said. “Our possession in the first 15 minutes of the game was not good at all, but it’s something to work on. We have a lot of potential on this team and there’s always room to improve.
“It could have been anyone’s game. … New Hartford is always going to be good and quick … but there’s always next time.”
New Hartford controlled the game and had the better chances in the second half, outshooting RFA 6-1. Midway through the final 40 minutes, the Spartans got the insurance goal they were looking for as Andrew Pizzoli took advantage of poor communication by RFA. The senior forward corralled a loose ball, and centered it to Wu, who popped it past Coluccio to make it 2-0 with just 16:29 remaining.
RFA (1-1, 1-3-2) had a few chances off nice corners by junior Nicholas Impicciatore, as well as nice efforts by Wilbert, who moved up to mid/attack in the second half. Once again, New Hartford’s defense stood strong and calmly cleared to allow their midfielders and forwards to turn the field, while running out the clock.
“It’s early but I think we’re doing great at this point of the season,” Chiffy said. “We have areas we can improve, but we’ve already found great chemistry this season and I think we can go pretty far.”
When he was just a sophomore, Chiffy was a big part of New Hartford winning the sectional title in 2016. Knowing No. 14 is back there as another coach on the field is comforting to Davies-Nelson.
“Besides the fact he has four years of varsity experience, he’s the communicator, he’s the one that helps the guys as far as positioning goes and he really has such passion for the game,” Davies-Nelson said. “Without his knowledge back there, we’d be lost without him.”
Coluccio finished with seven saves for RFA, which returns to action at 10:30 Saturday when they host Clinton at RFA Stadium.
New Hartford heads to Oneonta this weekend to play Island Trees Saturday and Garden City Sunday at Wright National Soccer Campus.
Rome Free Academy 2, New Hartford 0
New Hartford (3-0, 4-1): Caleb Wu 1-0, Nick Butler 1-0, Alex Chiffy 0-1, Andrew Pizzoli 0-1. Nick Buchholz 1 save.
RFA (1-1, 1-3-2): Chase Coluccio 7 saves.