With trips back to Africa slated for both Sallieu Bundu and Musa Otieno of Cleveland, it could have been easy for the pair to be distracted Saturday night at Krenzler Stadium. Instead, the duo played pivotal roles in the second-year City Stars winning the USL Second Division Championship 2-1 against the two-time champion Charlotte Eagles.
In a game that looked destined on paper to be a defensive battle with neither side scoring more than once in any of their four previous meetings, there were plenty of offensive opportunities in the thrilling finale.
The opening goal came by unusual circumstances 15 minutes in for the hosts. Schulte sent a long throw-in inside the box, finding Musa Otieno eight yards from goal. Otieno just missed connecting with a header, but his large frame left Charlotte defender Steve Shak screened from seeing the well-paced ball as it deflected off the defenseless veteran and found its way into the back of the net for an own goal.
In the 19th minute Charlotte's Robert Ssejjemba made a strong run in the box, but the former veteran Kenyan international captain and defender Otieno smothered his cross attempt with a tackle on the right flank. The tackle also left Ssejjemba injured, forcing him to leave the match. The following corner led to a header from Shak that missed narrowly over the top.
On the half hour mark Charlotte's Jorge Herrera sent a low cross into the six that Dustin Swinehart nearly redirected with a back heel inside the far post only to see it roll just wide.
A brilliant play by Cleveland's Sallieu Bundu in the 39th proved the difference in the game. The Sierra Leone international stole the ball from a Charlotte defender on the left flank and sped his way into the box before firing a rocket past another Charlotte back and goalkeeper Kevin Trapp from a narrow angle into the far side netting.
The goal was redemption for Bundu, who had an apparent goal earlier waived off with a controversial offside call that appeared on replay to be erroneous.
In the 57th minute Cleveland's Jason Hotchkin was staring at nearly a wide open goal and a potential commanding lead, but his header off a cross from Bundu sailed over the crossbar.
Two minutes later Swinehart had two consecutive chances that stemmed from a corner kick. The corner dropped into the box and found its way to the league MVP, who took a quick shot on goal that was cleared off the line by Godfrey Tenoff. In the scramble to clear, the ball immediately found its way back into the box, but Swinehart's header flew just wide of the post.
Hotchkin had another chance in the 69th when he caught Trapp out of position and his shot from 25 yards that was directed inside the far post was knocked wide by a diving save.
Two more Cleveland chances arose from a long run by former Eagle Adam Ruud in the 79th minute. Ruud took the ball from midfield and drove all the way into the penalty area, splitting the defenders and creating a dangerous chance only to see it stopped. The ball would not be immediately cleared, however, and Ruud would have another shot stopped before it fell out to Derek Potteiger, who would also be denied.
In the 85th, a run from Ian Leibbrandt also created another opportunity for a third Cleveland tally, but his initial shot was stopped by Trapp. A loose rebound gave Leibbrandt another chance at it, but the netminder had recovered to smother the second attempt.
Shortly after, Dan Harvey was inserted and it paid immediate dividends for Charlotte. Swinehart dropped it to Gustavo Bentos, who's shot was deflected to the flank where Harvey would cross it back into the box. Joseph Kabwe was in the right place to put the ball away in the 87th to give the Eagles hope for the few remaining minutes.
A few seconds into the 90th minute Potteiger had another golden chance from 16 yards to secure the win, but his shot toward the post was sent wide by Trapp. It would prove inconsequential; however, as the final three minutes of stoppage time would tick off the clock without an equalizer from Charlotte, giving the Cleveland City Stars the title in just their second season.
The reigning two-time USL Second Division Defender of the Year Mark Schulte was honored as the Championship MVP for his efforts in shutting down Swinehart for the majority of the match en route to the victory.
The championship celebration will be cut short for Bundu and Otieno, who are headed back to Africa. Bundu will immediately return to Sierra Leone to join the national team, having been called up earlier in the week for their World Cup qualifier against Equatorial Guinea on September 6. With Nigeria having already clinched the group's top spot, Sierra Leone are in a race to finish as one of the top eight runners-up among the 12 groups, having secured four points already from a win and draw against World Cup host South Africa.
Otieno is headed back to his South African Premier League side Santos on loan from the City Stars. The veteran player who has won the PSL championship and received the league MVP honor and chairman's award will join the side he has captained as it begins its season on August 27.
USL First Division
Wednesday, Aug. 20
Atlanta Silverbacks 1 at Montreal Impact 3
A half hour into the affair, Impact veteran Mauro Biello netted his first goal in over a year on an assist from Toni Donatelli, who doubled the lead himself three minutes before the break. Tony McManus drew the visitors within one in the 63rd only to have Roberto Brown restore the advantage six minutes later.
Vancouver Whitecaps 0 at Seattle Sounders 0
The two northwest rivals battled to the stalemate with Jay Nolly making four saves for the visitors and Chris Eylander seven for the hosts.
Friday, Aug. 22
Carolina RailHawks 2 at Minnesota Thunder 1
The RailHawks ended a nine game winless stretch with the victory. Defender Caleb Norkus struck first 10 minutes in and Santiago Fusilier doubled the advantage in the 34th. Jeremiah Bass' strike in the 90th proved too late for the home side.
Charleston Battery 1 at Puerto Rico Islanders 2
The league-leading Islanders pushed open their lead over third-place Charleston, coming from behind with a pair of goals from Fabrice Noel in the 69th and 73rd minutes after falling behind in the 58th on a Lazo Alavanja tally.
Portland Timbers 1 at Vancouver Whitecaps 2
The second-place Whitecaps kept pace with Puerto Rico in a back-and-forth victory over Portland in which Lyle Martin set up Nicholas Addlery for both Vancouver strikes. The first came just three minutes in, but was negated by a Lawrence Olum strike nine minutes later. Addlery's winner would come two minutes before the break.
Saturday, Aug. 23
Atlanta Silverbacks 0 at Rochester Rhinos 2
The Rhinos avenged their previous loss to Atlanta by smothering the Silverbacks with two goals in the first 26 minutes. Defender Ross Smith provided the go-ahead goal and Tiger Fitzpatrick doubled the lead five minute later.
Sunday, Aug. 24
Charleston Battery 0 at Miami FC Blues 3
Chasing a playoff berth, Miami's offense charged back up with Alex Afonso finding the back of the net three times. The Brazilian's first came just nine minutes into the encounter with the second coming in the 74th. He capped the hat-trick two minutes from time for the commanding advantage.
Atlanta Silverbacks 1 at Montreal Impact 3
The Impact's recent addition Felix Brillant lived up to his name with two goals and an assist to the lead his side in the win. He set up Roberto Brown in the 11th minute and scored in the 50th and 79th to push the lead to three. Atlanta's Matt Bobo would find a consolation goal in the 90th.
Carolina RailHawks 3 at Seattle Sounders 4
Three was the order of the night, but Hamed Diallo's hat-trick was not enough for the visitors as Seattle rallied from two deficits to post the victory. Josh Gardner snapped Seattle's unusual scoreless stretch 17 minutes in only to see Diallo put the RailHawks in front with goals in the 23rd and 30th. Roger Levesque would level the terms in the 36th only to have Diallo restore the Carolina lead four minutes into the second half. Then Gardner struck again in the 63rd to tie the match back up with Sebastien LeToux finishing the contest two minutes later with the winner.