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NATIONAL PREMIER SOCCER LEAGUE PLAYOFFS

With 1-0 win at War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock Rangers advance in playoffs

By Brooks Kubena

This article was published July 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The Little Rock Rangers pose for a photo on Wednesday night at War Memorial Stadium.

Little Rock Rangers forward Donald Benamna found himself pinned in the left corner of his opponent's end in the final minute of a scoreless playoff match, and decided he had to do something.

Benamna dribbled past two defenders, tapped a pass toward Katsuyoshi Kimishima in the middle of the field, then received a give-and-go pass directly in front of the goal.

Benamna promptly delivered the game-winning goal that allowed the Rangers to beat Tulsa Athletic 1-0 in the Heartland Conference semifinals Wednesday night at War Memorial Stadium.

It was the Rangers' first playoff victory in the franchise's three-year history in the National Premier Soccer League.

The Rangers knocked out the team that eliminated them in the first round of last season's playoffs. Little Rock (8-3) will now travel to top-seeded FC Wichita (8-2-1) on Saturday in the Heartland Conference final.

The Heartland champion will then moveto the South Region semifinals.

"Man. Last minute, you know?" Benamna said. "I'm just so glad that I was able to provide something for the team. It was for the team and the fans."

"I'm very pleased that we got the playoff win here at home," said Little Rock Coach Will Montgomery, whose team has now won six consecutive games. "Tulsa, they're a really good soccer team. One of our biggest rivals. And I'm really pleased with the dedication these guys have shown all year."

The Rangers, which have now shut out their last five opponents, yielded several shots on goal from Tulsa Athletic to start of the game.

By the 15th minute, Tulsa Athletic broke into the open field with a defensive counter. Forward Joseph Ruiz got past two Little Rock defenders when he received a pass inside 10 yards of the Rangers' goal, but his shot rolled just left of the net.

Tulsa Athletic's attack continued into the 25th minute when midfielder Aaron Ugbah broke open down the left side. Little Rock goalkeeper Walid Birrou Essafi sprinted out of the box and separated Ugbah from the ball, which rolled out of bounds and returned possession to the Rangers.

"They were trying to press us," Montgomery said, "trying to force errors in our defensive third and win the ball and go from there."

Essafi prevented another Tulsa goal in the 38th minute, blocking an open shot with his left arm.

"He's phenomenal right?" Montgomery said. "He's come up with some big saves this year, and in games like this he comes up bigger. He understands what he needs to do in those moments. They could have put the game away with two breakaways and he came up with the saves."

Tulsa Athletic rushed out to start the second half with a flurry of shots. Midfielder Santiago Erazo delivered a lead pass directly in front of teammate Jordan Schmoker, whose shot broke wide left.

It was the only shot of several that came close to breaking the stalemate. A potential Tulsa Athletic goal on a header was waved off due to a foul.

Benamna nearly set the Rangers ahead in the 67th minute, when he juked his way toward an open shot from 15 yards out that was caught by a diving Reed.

Benamna delivered the game-winning goal nearly 20 minutes later.

Moments after Wednesday night's victory, Benamna trotted past The Red Watch supporters group, exchanging high-fives until one man wrapped him in a bear hug.

"You've got to give them the love back," said Bemanma.

Sports on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Rangers advance in NPSL

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