Mustangs outmuscle Gaels in Class LL opener

The Shelton High boys soccer team has had its share of trouble against physical teams this season. It’s latest run-in ended up being its last.

The 13th-seeded Gaels seemed to have their passing game going early during the first round of the Class LL state tournament, but 20th-seeded Fairfield Warde scored an early goal on one of its only opportunities of the first half then turned the game over to its defense, ending Shelton’s season with a 1-0 victory Tuesday night at Finn Stadium.

Warde senior Sofiene Afif scored in the 12th minute on a play that originated out of the defensive backfield, giving the Mustangs (8-6-4) an early 1-0 lead. Warde then went to work, holding Shelton to just three shots in the second half.

The Gaels, who were knocked out of the SCC playoffs in the first round on penalty kicks, finished the season with a 9-5-3 record.

“We have trouble sometimes with a physical opponent,” Shelton head coach Joe D’Auria said. “They were just knocking us off the ball and we couldn’t get into a rhythm. We had some opportunities. We just couldn’t capitalize. They had their one opportunity in the first half and they buried it.”

The only offense being produced over the first 10 minutes came from Shelton, behind the play at midfield by senior Matt Manzo and senior forward Matt Stoll.

The Gaels challenged in the first minute, as Manzo made a nice cross from the right sideline into the box.

But the shot by junior Brett Peterson went just over the crossbar.

Little did D’Auria realize but that would be his team’s best chance of the game.

Warde didn’t have a single shot on goal over the first 11 minutes, choosing to focus on defense in an effort to counter-act Shelton’s talent up front.

“I knew they had a lot of attacking prowess, so our focus was defensive shape,” said Warde head coach Justin Ottavio, whose team went on to lose to No. 4 Glastonbury in the second round.

“We held our shape very, very well. There were very few second-ball chances for Shelton.”

Afif’s goal, scored from 30 yards out off a pass from Griffin Pugh and a nice run out of the defensive zone by senior Jack Anderson, allowed Fairfield Warde to sit back even more, jamming all but one or two players into the defensive zone.

Behind the play of senior sweeper Tom Luckner and senior stopper Kyle Millington, the Mustangs did it to near perfection in the second half, holding the Gaels to just three shots over the final 40 minutes.

“I think the goal allowed us to have confidence,” Ottavio said. “We came in as the twenty seed, but we were the seventh-ranked team in the FCIAC, one of the toughest conferences in the state, so we should have confidence. That goal helped build more confidence.”

D’Auria was hoping the goal by Warde would spark his team in a positive way, but it only ended up doing the opposite.

“Typically when we go down a goal it sets something off in them and they realize now they have to start playing,” D’Auria said.

“In that first half after they scored, the level of play just went flat. We were stagnant. I think we playing right into their hands a little bit. I think we were just shell-shocked.”

Shelton had eight corner kicks in the game, including five over the first 18 minutes of the first half.

But the Gaels chose to play the ball short instead of serving it into the box and produced just four shots on goal over that span.

“We run a couple of set plays, but after running it one or two times, we ran it a couple more when they should have been services to the box,” D’Auria said. “Looking back, you wish you could get those back and do it over again the right way.”

Now D’Auria and the Gaels are left to wrestle with what might have been.

“This is one of the closest, most bonded teams I’ve ever had,” D’Auria said. “When they huddle together before games, their chant is, ‘Family.’ Even though we lost, that’s what we are.”