LUDLOW, Mass. – Alencar Junior scored early, then late, as the Western Mass Pioneers and CFC Azul battled to a 2-2 season-opening draw at Lusitano Stadium on Friday.
Junior opened the account in the third minute to give the hosts a lead that didn’t last long after former Revolution draft pick Ryan Kinne equalized in the sixth minute. The match remained level going into the break, but Sebastian Brems put the guests ahead in the 71st minute. Junior answered back in the 79th minute as both sides walked away with a deserved point.
“It was a good game,” said Junior. “They played well, too, especially in the second half. It was awesome.”
Damp conditions opened the door for a particularly fast-paced start, and both sides didn’t disappoint in front of a large Lusitano Stadium crowd that braved the elements to witness the start of a new season.
Former Pioneer D.J. Pereira gave his old teammates an early scare when his long range effort hit the post in the 2nd minute. But less than a minute after Pereira’s warning shot, the Pioneers found paydirt.
Kyle Tomas sent Junior on a run into the final third, where the Brazilian striker eluded his defender slipped it through the legs of keeper Andrew Esposito to put the hosts on top early.
The Western Mass lead would prove to be short-lived as a result of the inventive work of Kinne. A lively force out on the wing, the former Revolution midfielder leveled it in the sixth minute when he grabbed a lazy back passsent a shot through at the near post in the sixth minute.
“As soon as they played that back pass, I saw that (the defender) just kept picking his head up,” Kinne said. “I pressed his feet and blocked the pass. I got a fortunate bounce, tucked it neat, and finished it.”
With two goals already on the board inside of six minutes, it appeared that many more would follow. Junior nearly set up another in the 16th minute when he beat Esposito on a 50/50 ball before it trickled into the box for Tomas. The Pioneers’ midfielder did all he could to steer it into an empty net, but late pressure from a pair of Azul defenders made him hurry his shot, which smacked the post.
The Azul made a pair of bids after the half-hour mark, with Eddie Bogle pulling the trigger in the 31st and 33rd minutes. Neither shot missed its target by much, but Bogle would threaten the Pioneers’ defense all evening.
After the interval, the Azul rededicated its attacking efforts, and put immediate pressure on the Pioneers. And in the 53rd minute, they almost broke through when Sven Ricke broke into the box was ready to line up his shot before Ryan Reynolds came to rescue to make a last-ditch tackle to snuff out the opportunity.
But the guests wouldn’t have to wait much longer to grab the go-ahead. In the 71st minute, Brems chased a lobbed ball into the box, where he split his defenders, briefly lost the ball, reclaimed it and a couple of touches later, sent it through to put the Azul on top.
The Pioneers, who were largely kept in check for much of the second half, collected three straight corner kicks as the final 10 minutes approached. And on the third, the Pioneers made the Azul pay when Junior pushed a curling ball from Evan Burokas into the back of the net in the 79th minute.
“It was tough to get,” Junior said about his team’s efforts to get the equalizer. “I was telling my teammates to put the ball up top because their defenders were short.”
Both teams appeared to tire out in the waning moments. An 82nd minute free kick from Burokas that settled into the waiting arms of Esposito served as the only remarkable opportunity following Junior’s equalizer.
“Our fitness isn’t there yet,” Kinne said. “This was actually our first game with all our college kids back so to play that well in the first game was really good.”
The Pioneers return to action on May 23 at Lusitano Stadium, where they’ll host GPS Portland Phoenix. The Azul will resume their season-opening five-game road swing on Sunday against Seacoast United Phantoms in Portsmouth, N.H.