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Cupset Redux: Bottom-seed Flower City Union advance to NISA Final

The third division pro side from Rochester, NY are just one more away win from lifting silverware: Can they beat the odds a third time?

Flower City Union upset Chattanooga FC to advance to the NISA Finals | Courtesy Chattanooga FC

Flower City Union is continuing its improbable run in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) playoffs. 

After backing into the postseason as the last team to make the tournament, then positing a surprise win over #3 LA Force in Los Angeles, Flower City defeated #1 Chattanooga FC – a team that was fielding both the Golden Boot winner and the Golden Glove winner – to advance to the title match. 

The game played to a scoreless draw through 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. Flower City, from Rochester, NY, then blanked the regular-season champions, 2-0, in penalty kicks.

“It was a great game, both teams were playing to win,” head coach Jordan Sullivan told HRB. “We definitely rode our luck at times but Mike (Mejia) and the back line were outstanding all night. I feel the team kept their composure well and kept working throughout the entire game.”

Now #6 Flower City will play #2 Michigan Stars FC for the NISA championship on Saturday. The game will kick off at 3:30 pm ET, and will be streamed for free on FIFA+.

A flower blooms in Tennessee

Flower City entered Sunday’s semifinal as the underdogs. It’s been more than one year since Flower City defeated Chattanooga, and Finley Stadium in downtown Chattanooga, TN was filled with 3,279 fans expecting to see the heavily favored home side advance.

Instead, the crowd saw a star-making performance by Flower City keeper Michael Mejia. After helping his team hold on against LA Force last week, the North Bergen, NJ native held an improbable clean sheet against the top seed. According to Sullivan, it was the best goalkeeping performance he’s seen in person during 20 years as a player and coach.

Mejia was tested early and often. Starting in the 24th minute, Chattanooga midfielder Jesus Ibarra sent a high pass into the box seemingly destined for one of two charging teammates. Instead, it went between the two and out for a goal kick. A few minutes later Ibarra had a direct chance on goal when Mutaya Mwape fed a pass near him on a run. Ibarra got a hard shot off on the left side but Mejia advanced and dove on it immediately for the save.

The biggest save of the night came as Chattanooga fought to score late in the game. A long throw-in saw the ball end up near the edge of the penalty area. NISA Golden Boot winner Markus Naglestad shot towards the left post and Mejia went to ground. However, the mass of bodies deflected the chance towards forward Taylor Gray on the left side. Gray shot high towards the right post and Mejia, still on one knee, extended himself to get a fingertip save.

It was just enough to redirect the shot high over the box. A Chattanooga attacker jumped up to head in the ball on an open net, but his attempt hit the crossbar. Mejia stood up and was embraced by one of his teammates as the home crowd applauded.

“It’s really hard to describe a moment like this because everything is happening at a fast pace,” said Mejia, who won a conference title in 2019 with Montclair State University. “It’s a reflection save. Coach (Marcelo Moreira) has done a great job with the GK union here at FCU. We’ve been preparing all season for moments like these.”

Offensively Flower City played exactly like you expect a lower seed would. The team had almost no shots on frame against Golden Glove winner Jean Antoine. The visitors employed a high press and tried to threaten in transition. A quick break in the 54th minute saw Stephen Elias get a shot that looked on net but was blocked by a well-placed defender.

Antoine did go to ground in the 90th minute to jump on a long ball pass before Alioune Diakhate could get on it, which left the Haitian keeper with a gash on his face. Flower City’s best chance to win it outright came in the second extra half when Elias headed a shot just over the crossbar.

Overall, Flower City was pinned back for most of the second half and in both extra-time halves. Chattanooga knew what game the visitors were playing and countered it. But be it nerves, bad luck, or Mejia, the home side failed to convert.

A tense shootout

The evidence for nerves or perhaps a curse came out more in the shootout as the home side went first in round one. Defender Anatolie Prepeliță, who was capped by the Moldova national team, slammed his attempt off the crossbar. Over the next three rounds, Mejia saved shots from Naglestad and Alex McGrath. Ibarra, who’d been a threat all night, hit his third-round attempt off the right post.

Chattanooga’s Antoine made saves in the first and third rounds, but he allowed Noah Cavanaugh to score in the second. That meant Diakhate’s successful fourth-round shot was enough to put the New Yorkers into their first-ever national championship.

“It was a part of the most joyful moment of my football life,” said Diakhate, whose early brace in the semifinals helped get Flower City to last weekend… “My focus was only to put the ball into the back of the net.”

Near the far corner flag, Mejia watched crouching as the game-winning shot went in. He stood up, only to be overcome and fall to his knees as his teammates ran towards him.

“It meant everything to see my teammates rushing towards me after the PK shootout,” said the goalkeeper. “It’s a brotherhood moment. I know they got my back and I got their back at the end of the day, we’re in this together. Since day one.”

Rochester’s return to the top

Flower City are the first men’s team from Rochester to reach the final of a professional league in nearly a decade. In 2015, the Rochester Rhinos completed an incredible season in the then-third-division United Soccer League (now 2nd Division USL Championship) with a double.

The Rhinos won the regular season championship with a record of 17 wins, 10 draws, and 1 loss. The team went on to beat LA Galaxy II, 2–1 after extra time, to win its fifth league title. That match was in front of 5,000 fans at what is now known as Rochester Community Sports Complex Stadium (it was Sahlen’s Stadium then), which Flower City calls home.

Including women’s soccer, it’s been seven years since a Rochester pro side has made it to a final. The Western New York Flash won the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Championship over the Washington Spirit, 2–2 (2:3 penalties) in 2016.

Like Flower City, the Flash entered the postseason as the lowest seed and faced the regular season champion Portland Thorns FC in the semifinals. US Women’s National Team midfielder Sam Mewis scored the opening goal in both the semis and the final that year. Lynn Williams scored the game-winner for the Flash in the semifinal before scoring an extra time-tying goal in the NWSL Final to force penalties.

Coincidentally, Gotham FC also reached the NWSL Final this past Sunday by beating the Portland Thorns. Sam’s sister Kristie Mewis assisted Katie Stengel (a member of that losing 2016 Washington Spirit team) on the game-winning goal in extra time for the bats. Lynn Williams joined Gotham this year and leads the team with nine goals across all competitions.

Chattanooga chokes, again

Sunday’s loss is the latest in a long line for Chattanooga FC in major matches. The team has yet to win a league postseason championship since its founding in 2009.

There have been four postseason tournaments since CFC joined NISA in 2020. The club has qualified every time and lost in the semifinals each time. The last two were hosted at Finley Stadium with the hosts being the favorite to win.

Prior to going pro the team played in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). That eleven-season tenure included four trips to the NPSL Finals with losses in each. In 2016, Chattanooga was considered one of the best teams in the nation with a near-unbeaten record. Reaching the national semifinals, two goals in the last ten minutes saw the Sonoma County Sol advance in a huge upset.

Flower City is also the fourth straight New York side to deny Chattanooga a win in the postseason.

CFC lost in back-to-back NPSL national finals to NYC area sides. The New York Red Bulls U-23 won in Harrison to capture the 2014 NPSL title. The following year in 2015 New York Cosmos B won the title in front of 18,227 fans, a record crowd for a non-professional match in the United States.

Fast forward to 2020 and Chattanooga’s first postseason in NISA. The COVID-19-affected NISA Fall Championship saw CFC play the New York Cosmos to a scoreless draw in group stage play. The ironic twist was that in the four-team group, Chattanooga finished second by one point. Had CFC finished first it might have led to a better match-up in the knockout stage and not another semifinal defeat.

Chattanooga FC is set to make an announcement next week regarding the future of the team. Reports suggest CFC are set to join MLS Next Pro in 2024.

Next up: Flower City vs Michigan Stars

Flower City will travel to Washington Township, MI to face the Michigan Stars in the NISA Championship Final this Saturday, November 11. The game will be played at Romeo High School Stadium, the same site as the 2022 league final.

Michigan didn’t lose to Flower City in their six previous matches. Four of those six games saw the Stars win by two or more goals.

However, the last game the two teams played was slightly different. The September 23 match saw FCU, technically playing as Salt City Union, lose 2-3 at Falcon Park in Auburn, New York. The home side held the lead at one point and came back to tie before a penalty kick put Michigan ahead for good.

“We are thrilled to be here but the job isn’t finished,” said Sullivan. “We are refocusing this week and getting dialed in for another weekend of travel and hopefully make the city of Rochester proud and bring home a chip.”

Diakhate is more than proud of Flower City. The team’s constant improvement over the season, overcoming mounting defeats to push for the playoffs, is special. But it’s also a bit personal. Last season the forward played with ALBION San Diego and reached the NISA Final (also beating the highest seed en route). His team faced the Stars at Romeo High School and lost.

“I want to go all the way and win the trophy because I lost it last year against Michigan with (San Diego),” he said. “And I am here again to play in a championship final against the same team. I will do my best to win it because (the team and I) are not satisfied.”