Westbrook falls 3-1 to Portland

Portlander Aaron Hoekstra and Westbrooker Ahmad Qasem do battle.

WESTBROOK—An early Ryan Shackley goal put Westbrook ahead of visiting Portland on Thursday, Sept. 28, but the Bulldogs battled back as the evening wore on, ultimately seizing the lead and winning 3-1.

“We wanted to expose their outside backs,” Westbrook head coach Vince Aceto said of Portland. “They’re a strong group up the middle – they have a really strong striker; we wanted to make sure we kept it off his feet into the outside part of the field most of the day. And [we] succeeded in that in the first half; but I think with the wind in [our] face in the second half, it became increasingly difficult. We were hoping the wind would die down, but it didn’t.”

“The things we wanted to do [were] just keep possession, you know, play our game that we play every single game, and get better as a team and as a whole,” said Ahmad Qasem, a sophomore forward and a feisty presence on the attack. “We played through the middle and the wings, and especially the strikers – probably this is one of the best games we’ve had all season. As a bench, as a whole team right now, we’re saying, ‘Keep positive; this is what we want to do and this is how we’re going to win and make it to the playoffs.’”

“Probably the toughest thing was the through-balls to our defense,” Qasem said, asked what allowed Portland to pressure successfully. “But we had our outside left back and right back, they stopped every through-ball that was going to the outside. They probably had the best game. Our defense as a whole – even though we got three scored on us – they did a good job.”

Portland controlled the majority of the attack, but Westbrook struck first, Shackley beating Bulldogs keeper Rowan Daligan roughly nine and half minutes in, assisted by Jean-Marc Lohomboli. Aceto described the goal from his perspective:

“Ryan’s been working on a short corner kick with his teammates this year,” he said. “We tell him to gauge it, see what he sees. Everybody backed off him, he decided this was the time. He did well; he’s very patient about it. When he sees people that are going to mark him, he’ll take the shot – he’s got a great shot.”

Portland nearly tied things up a couple minutes later, a ball that missed just wide of the left post. Similarly, 13 minutes after that, Bulldog Gracien Mukwa laid a nice bicycle kick on the Blazes’ net – but keeper Jacob Brackett was right there, and grabbed the shot handily.

Westbrook soon turned a couple quick chances of their own – one on a quick throw-in/header combo and another on a corner/redirect – but Daligan caught both to keep his boys safe. 

“We had some unlucky shots,” Qasem said. “But our two strikers are really good up top; they’re unpredictable.”

Portlander Tahn Tiparos finally put the ‘Dogs on the board with 10:29 to play in the uphill half, a tally from very low on the left side of the Blazes’ cage. And once Portland found their groove, they never relinquished it: Alex Millones scored around the 27-minute mark of the second half (on a PK), and Pedra Fonseca scored approximately eight minutes later.

“When [Portland] scored,” Aceto said, “it was one bad decision by a sweeper, and one unfortunate handball. But other than that, to me it was a great game. It was just a good game. I was really proud of the way they played.”

Aceto applauded his boys’ grit. “When they got down, they didn’t give up,” he said. “They stuck to the game plan of just keeping the ball on the ground, not up into the wind, the air. Making sure the ball got to feet quicker. And they saw the transition when it didn’t, and they were just trying to beat the wind and kick it long and get out of an attack. They settled down and got into their game, and it was a much better attack.”

“I was proud of the way they won the ball out of the air, challenging for it,” Aceto said. “Sometimes that’s a deficiency for us, and they stepped up tonight, working the ball out of the air, winning it, being stronger. Even the smaller guys, going up to challenge, and if they didn’t win it, the point is to get them in the mindset that they can compete and get up and win the ball. That helped us a lot.”

“I’d like to say everybody played well,” Aceto said, asked which of his boys turned in excellent performances. “Brandt [Herbert] plays at the next level, up back; Jean-Marc plays at the next level up top. But those two guys aren’t that good without a supporting cast in front of them. Jake [Brackett] was outstanding in net tonight; he came up with some big saves that I don’t think many keepers in the league would’ve saved. He reads the game well; he’s very intelligent.”

Perhaps Brackett’s most spectacular save came late in the game, when he leapt and deflected a hard, high ball just up and over the cross bar.

Westbrook slipped to 3-7 on the loss; the 11th-ranked Blazes travel to Sanford (14th at 3-6) on Tuesday, Oct. 3; they host Marshwood (sixth at 6-4) a week later.

No. 3 Portland, meanwhile, moved to 8-1. The ‘Dogs host Marshwood on Tuesday; they travel to Deering on Thursday.

Adam Birt can be reached at abirt@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @CurrentSportsME.

Portlander Aaron Hoekstra and Westbrooker Ahmad Qasem do battle.

Westbrooker Brandt Herbert takes a touch on a midair ball.

Caleb Barlow gets air in pursuit of a header for Westbrook.

A pair of Bulldogs defenders – Tyler Lemay (2) and Quinn Clarke (4) – close in on Westbrook attacker Jean-Marc Lohomboli.