Flower City, the only team from New York State competing in the postseason of a professional soccer league this year, traveled across the country to face #3 seed Los Angeles Force on Sunday night. But a quick start and a sturdy defense gave Flower City their first-ever playoff win – and the biggest upset of the 2023 NISA playoffs – when the game finished 2-4.
Flower City will next play in the NISA semifinals this coming weekend. The team will face top-seed and regular-season champions Chattanooga FC on Sunday, November 5th at 5pm ET.
The game will be held at historic Finley Stadium in downtown Chattanooga, and will be streamed for free on FIFA+.
A brace in opening 6 minutes
Playing in Whittier, CA, a suburb to the east of Los Angeles that might be best known for being where Richard Nixon attended College, Flower City needed just six minutes to take a two-goal lead.
Alioune Diakhate scored both goals, finding the back of the net in the second and sixth minutes. The turbo-charged brace left the Force looking shell-shocked. Flower City’s Stephen Elias (formerly of local amateur side Lansdowne Yonkers FC), sent a cross from the right side to Diakhate to set up the first goal. Noah Cavanaugh, who played for the Force back in 2019, set Diakhate up for a point-blank header a few minutes later.
While the result is a shock on paper, Flower City head coach Jordan Sullivan says it shouldn’t be.
“We (weren’t) surprised,” Sullivan told HRB. “We had a great week of training and couldn’t have got off to a better start. This has been in us all season and was great to see the guys click and come together.”
But soon the Force began to rise, and cut the deficit in half when Francis Avoce scored in the 18th minute. The home side at Rio Hondo College Stadium had a critical chance in the 37th minute when the Union committed a foul in the box. However, Aldo Quintanilla, whose career includes a loan to the Houston Dynamo, put the shot over the crossbar. A few minutes earlier, Flower City defender Josue Cartagena had made it 3-1.
The Force’s offense kicked into high gear in the second half. Flower City goalkeeper Michael Mejia was forced into making multiple saves, but Avoce got one back in the 51st minute. LA pushed up and gave FCU substitute Malik Stewart a chance to put the game away with a 90+2 minute dagger.
The loss was LA Force’s first at home this season.
“I feel our identity beat them, we were comfortable in their final third and took our chances which was brilliant,” said Diakhate.
The Union needed a strong end of the season to even make the playoffs. The race for the sixth seed was between the New York side and Club de Lyon FC (Orlando, FL). Three wins and a draw in their last six games, plus five losses in October by Lyon, allowed FCU to nab the final spot as the last team in.
Flower City’s short, impressive history
NISA, for the unaware, is a professional men’s soccer league on the third tier of the American soccer pyramid. The league is on the same level as USL League One and MLS Next PRO, which places them two divisions below Major League Soccer.
Flower City made headlines a few times since starting play in 2022. In last year’s US Open Cup, the team faced DC United in Rochester. It was the first time the city hosted an MLS team in six years. DC was held scoreless for 75 minutes, and the poor showing contributed to then-head coach Hernán Losada getting fired a few days later.
Off the field, the team has a budding fan base within Rochester. Despite an awkward two-city agreement this season, with the team playing a handful of games near Syracuse under the “Salt City Union” name, the games at Rochester Community Sports Complex have seen steady attendance growth. Two of the 11 regular season games at the complex this season had announced attendance figures over 1,000. A fan ownership campaign has also borne fruit, having raised close to $70,000 at the time of this article’s publication.
“For us, this group has really come together and the boys are not ready for the season to be over,” said Sullivan. “For us it’s a great feeling to make FCU history but we also understand we still have work to do. We have had amazing fans all season and winning our first playoff game was a great first step in saying thank you.”
Next up: Top-seed Chattanooga FC
Chattanooga are seeking their first league title this weekend. Founded in 2009, Chattanooga’s first eleven seasons in the semi-professional National Premier Soccer League saw the team reach the national championship finals four times but never win. Two of those title losses came against the academy/reserve sides of two professional teams from the Tri-State Area area, the New York Red Bulls U23 (2014) and New York Cosmos B (2015).
Since joining NISA in 2020, Chattanooga haven’t advanced past the semifinals in three postseason appearances (Fall 2020, Spring 2021, and 2022). But they lifted silverware when they won the NISA League Cup this season by finishing first in the table.
Flower City and Chattanooga have met eight times since 2022. The New Yorkers won the first match last April, but since then CFC have dominated the head-to-head. This season Chattanooga won three games against Flower City and tied once (technically against Salt City).
“Individually I always review my previous games to see where mistakes were made,” Diakhate said about facing the higher seed. “I also look at the record of the upcoming opposing team. I use those elements to help my game plan, address old issues, and handle new challenges. I think if we work together we can win this game.”