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How sixth-seed Flower City Union won the NISA title

The underdogs from Rochester, NY had to win three games on the road against higher seeds.

Flower City Union from Rochester, NY. defeated Michigan Stars FC to win the 2023 NISA Championship | Courtesy Michigan Stars FC

It was a weekend of trophies for New York soccer teams. 

New York City FC won the Noche d’Or on Friday night over Inter Miami CF, which didn’t exactly earn them a trophy, but it was a match dedicated to some dude earning his eighth trophy. The next day, Gotham FC lifted their first NWSL Championship in a thrilling 2-1 win over OL Reign.

But tucked in between those two games was Flower City Union’s triumph in Washington Township, MI. The second-year side from Rochester, NY defied the odds to win the Third Division National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) championship early Saturday evening: The 0-1 win over Michigan Stars FC at Romeo High School Stadium gave Flower City their first league championship.

The only team in the NISA playoffs with a losing record, Flower City won three straight road games against stiff competition for the title.

“It feels great. Very proud of how the guys finished the season,” head coach Jordan Sullivan told HRB. “The entire (team) was incredible, so happy to see them come together and finish with a bang.”

Bolduc Plays Hero

Matt Bolduc, formerly of the Richmond Kickers in the USL, was named Player of the Match via a fan vote run by NISA. It’s hard to argue, considering his goal gave Rochester their first professional soccer championship in nearly a decade.

In the 52nd minute, Alioune Diakhate ran down the left side with three defenders converging around him. Diakhate, Flower City’s hero in both its previous playoff matches, passed to Bolduc near the middle of the box. His shot from ten yards out (or from the goal line if we’re using the endzone markings of the field) went between the legs of a Michigan defender. Goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva might have had his sightline blocked because he didn’t dive immediately. The former Zimbabwe national team keeper got something on it but the ball trickled into the back of the net for the title game’s only goal.

“I ran into the weak side space, Ali beat his man, found me and the rest is history,” Bolduc told HRB. “It most certainly is the most important and impactful goal of my career. I’m just happy to have been given the opportunity to prove my value playing for a club in a historically rich soccer city.”

Bolduc has never been a consistent goal scorer. With nearly 100 regular season games with the Kickers, across both division two and three, he only scored four goals. In NISA, though, the midfielder found consistency. He scored three times during the 2023 regular season for Flower City, including a critical game-winner from August 12 against Gold Star FC Detroit.

The 29-year-old won the USL League One regular season title with Richmond last season. Saturday’s victory was similar. The same high-intensity emotions that rang through his body after the final whistle were there in the pre-game locker room. Not only was he happy just to win for himself, but for the city with a rich soccer history that he and the team are now a part of.

“To win a title for Rochester is honestly inexplicable,” said Bolduc. “We pulled off something that nobody else thought we could do and that’s the beauty of football. The reason why we play the game is because anything can happen and all 30 of us involved in the club on a day-to-day basis knew and believed that we were capable of what we achieved. I am proud to have represented this city and I’m never going to forget this year. It’s the best year of my career and I can’t explain how grateful I am to have been given the chance to compete with these guys every week and play for the FCU badge.”

A tense affair

Goalkeeper Michael Mejia, last weekend’s hero against Chattanooga, did not need to display the same heroics he did in the semifinals. Neither goalkeeper did, especially in the first half, as chances were rare. The first shot on goal only came in the 42nd minute when Flower City Union’s Luke Ferreira took a long shot that was easily grabbed by Mkuruva. Diakhate followed that up with a shot over the crossbar to close out the half.

Flower City defender Kyle Nelson explained that his team knew what kind of squad Michigan Stars was: Athletic and tall, with a tendency to play direct. 

“We had to keep pressure high on their center backs and the back line knew if they went for the long ball we needed to win the first and second ball. If not, the Stars were very good at getting the lay off and having runners underneath the forwards as well as in behind,” said Nelson. “Our front 3-5 did a phenomenal job slowing the pace of the game down and giving us time for recovery. I think limiting the Stars’ chances came down to defending well from the back, yes but it also came from everyone contributing to retaining possession.”

The back line kept Mejia, a North Bergen, NJ native, covered for most of the match. Towards the end of the game, Michigan fought hard for the equalizer. Multiple set pieces, ranging from free kicks to corners, barely got to Mejia thanks to his teammates.

Two minutes into second-half stoppage time, NISA Golden Boot runner-up Leon Maric had a decent opportunity from 10 yards out. But the shot soared over the crossbar.

Repeat champions break the streak

Flower City is the fourth Rochester soccer team to capture a professional title. They join the Rochester Lancers (North American Soccer League), Rochester Rhinos (A-League & USL), and Western New York Flash (National Women’s Soccer League). The Rhinos also won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup crown in 1999, the last non-Major League Soccer team to do so.

For two players, it was their second straight season celebrating a championship at Romeo High School. Flower City midfielder Stephen Elias and Nelson both won with the Stars last season. Their run to the title in 2022 also involved a win against Chattanooga in the semis.

Nelson isn’t shy to admit how crazy it is to win in Michigan against his former team. Not only did it happen on the same field, but he did it with a former teammate.

Both Elias and Nelson took long journeys to even get to this second title. The pair originally played together at Valley United FC, a first-year NISA side in Phoenix, AZ, for the first half of 2022. That team was shut down mid-season for various reasons including alleged green card falsifications.

“We’ve been through a lot these past two years going from not knowing each other to being champions,” the defender said. “Once we arrived for preseason we caught up with our offseason lives and both looked at each other chuckling saying we are both here why not try and run it back? Truth be told it was always the mindset we carried the entire season but at the same time it’s footy, you never know what can happen.”

It was also a spot of revenge for one member of Flower City. Diakhate reached the 2022 NISA Final with ALBION San Diego before falling short to the Stars.

But finally, the win is also a change of pace for NISA itself. Through COVID and an initial format that involved a split Fall/Spring season (just like Europe) only two teams ever claimed league championships; Detroit City FC (2020/21. Fall 2021) and the Michigan Stars (2022). 

Flower City are the first champion to not come from the state of Michigan. They are also the first away team to win a NISA Final.

A weekend of sixth-seed victories

The championship might be the most out-of-nowhere title in recent memory. Last year Flower City won just two games and had a -44 goal differential. This year the team started the season by winning just one of its first eight games.

The team needed a late surge to make the playoffs and, ironically, help from the Stars. Michigan beat Club de Lyon, the team battle Flower City for the final playoff spot, three times in the last month of the season. That led to upset wins against Los Angeles Force and top-seed Chattanooga FC in the playoffs just to reach this final.

Nelson knew making it to the postseason meant wiping the slate clean. It was like a brand new season in which anything could happen — including a first-ever win against Michigan Stars.

“Though our results didn’t necessarily show it, we knew from early in the season we had a team that was able to compete with anyone in the league,” said Nelson. “This team has it at every single position. What came together for us was the sheer desire to be bought into our roles. Take each game separate from the past or potentially the next.

“I think that was the difference for us. Our belief, commitment, and desire to push our limits and win the important battles. The results just followed.”

Flower City’s win as a sixth seed wasn’t actually the only one of the weekend either.

Gotham FC snuck into the NWSL Championship playoffs as the sixth seed and had to find a way to win on the road against the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns on the road to make it to the title game. 

Then on Sunday, the second-division USL Championship had its own sixth-seed champion in Phoenix Rising FC. The team from Arizona scored in stoppage time against the Charleston Battery to tie the title game at 1-1. In penalty kicks, after being saved in the first two rounds, Rising came back, 3-2, to win its first title.

It was a wild weekend for soccer. 

For Flower City and its fans, it’s one they’ll never forget.