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Soccer: Alexandria boys fall one goal short against a top team in state from Apollo

For a second time this season, the Cardinals showed they can compete with a top team in their section, but a penalty-kick goal midway through the second half gave the Eagles their second 2-1 win of

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Alexandria senior Jack Breitzman dribbles the ball against the defense of St. Cloud Apollo's Ethan Duncan on Sept. 29, 2022. Duncan and the Eagles beat the Cardinals by a 2-1 score for the second time this season.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — The Alexandria boys soccer team has proven twice this season that it can play with one of the top Class AA teams in the state, but twice now, the Cardinals have fallen by one goal against St. Cloud Apollo.

The Eagles (9-1) are ranked No. 3 in Class AA in the QRF on Minnesota-scores.net, and No. 6 among all 203 programs regardless of class.

They beat Alexandria (6-4-2) in a 2-1 game on Sept. 6 in St. Cloud. In the rematch at AAHS, the Eagles won by that same score after a penalty-kick goal from junior Abdirahman Isse with 21:48 left proved to be the game-winner.

“Apollo has done a great job. They’ve found the rhythm that they needed to and should have had the last several years, and so I’m excited for them,” Alexandria head coach Brandon Johnson said. “They play well. They do their job really well. Congrats to them. It’s tough battles. Tonight, I thought we had it, but sometimes you don’t get lucky calls in the box and that’s just the way it goes. We played the cards we were dealt. The guys played tough.”

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The two teams waited through a 30-minute lightning delay in the first half as they played to a scoreless tie at the break.

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The Eagles grabbed the first lead with 33:33 left when Abdirehin Iman’s shot hit the fingertips of a diving Grayson Grove in front of the goal. The ball had enough life to get by the goal line in the right, front corner of the net.

The Cardinals answered almost 11 minutes later with a pretty goal from senior defender Bryce Paffrath. He ran onto a loose ball from near the right sideline around the 20-yard line and rocketed a shot that curved over the arms of Apollo keeper, Dylan Coulter.

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Alexandria senior Bryce Paffrath works to get possession of the ball in the middle of a group of St. Cloud Apollo players during a matchup with the Eagles on Sept. 29, 2022. Paffrath had the Cardinals' lone goal against the Eagles on a beautifully-placed shot from almost 30 yards out.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“Great goal. We train our back line that if you have a look, you take it,” Johnson said. “You pop it up and you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s going to get saved. Sometimes you’re going to hit it and it’s going to swerve and hit the side, back netting from 30 yards out, and it’s a beautiful shot. We’ll take those all day, every day.”

Paffrath’s goal tied the game at 1-1 with about 22 minutes left, but the momentum lasted less than a minute for the Cardinals. A penalty in the box with 21:48 left set up the PK opportunity for Isse on a call that Johnson did not agree with.

“Sometimes referees see things different than we do,” Johnson said. “Again, you play the cards you’re dealt and that’s the way you got to do it.”

Isse connected on the first penalty-kick opportunity that was waved off after Apollo players entered the half circle at the top of the box. Isse lined up a second time to kick, and he again buried the low, line-drive shot into the left corner of the net.

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Alexandria's Jack Carlson, right, and St. Cloud Apollo's Enoc Umana battle for the ball during a close game between the two Section 8AA teams on Sept. 29, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Alexandria had a couple good chances to score more. Jack Carlson sent a hard shot on goal with about 4 minutes left that went off Coulter’s hands and just over the top bar.

“Offensively, it has been a struggle all season for us to find good spacing and good opportunities to actually fire away,” Johnson said. “It’s just a spot for us to continue to work on. We played a little more defensively focused tonight knowing how our last match went with them and the midfield control they have. We weren’t anticipating a lot of looks, and I think we got about what we expected tonight with how we played.”

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Both Coulter and the 6-foot, 8-inch Grove made critical saves to keep their team in the game.

"Grayson does a great job," Johnson said. "A big guy in the net and someone you look at and realize you have to really work around him. His height is a big advantage for us and has saved us a lot this season. Every game, he gets stronger, he gets better and continues to prove he’s worthy. Great athlete and does a great job of keeping us in every match."

Thursday’s match was high intensity in front of a good crowd on a night when kids in Alexandria’s youth program got in free. It felt like a postseason game between two contenders in Section 8AA.

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Alexandria junior Cole Haabala gets to a loose ball in front of St. Cloud Apollo's Ethan Duncan on Sept. 29, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Apollo and St. Cloud Tech (7-3-1, No. 7 QRF) may end up being the top two seeds in the section, while the Cardinals (No. 15 QRF) are sitting third in the section standings in the eight-team field.

“This is the section championship match,” Johnson said of Apollo and Alexandria. “That’s what it feels like is these two teams are the ones who are going to be battling, and every time we’ve met it feels that way. It shows with the toughness that they play with, and the grit and determination.”

All four of the Cardinals’ losses this fall have come by one goal. Alexandria has proven it can play with the top teams on its schedule.

With four games left in the regular season, including home matches against Little Falls (Oct. 3), St. Cloud Tech (Oct. 4) and Bemidji (Oct. 8), the Cardinals will keep searching for ways to make a few more plays that turn those close losses into wins against good teams.

“We just got to really train some more looks and have more opportunities,” Johnson said. “We inevitably need to get more people up there who are willing to focus and score. Some personnel changes may need to happen, but at the end of the day this team is very defensive focused. You kind of play the strengths of the team you have, especially at the high school level. These guys are really good (at defense), and so we play to our strength. Every loss we’ve had has been a one-goal differential, and it shows. That’s what we’re going to build on and take advantage of what we can moving forward.”

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Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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