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The Rivalry Begins Anew

By sbadmin, 03/25/16, 7:00PM MDT

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The long wait is over. The 2016 USL season in finally here, and the league’s opening weekend promises to feature games that provide plenty of excitement. Chief among this weekend’s must-see games is the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and OKC Energy FC matchup at Taft Stadium Saturday night.

The game is a rematch of the two clubs’ 2015 USL Western Conference Semifinal that delivered heavy drama, and is one that fans and players alike have been eagerly looking forward to.

“I was excited [when I saw Colorado Springs as the season-opening opponent], because the last time we met was such a great event, so to speak, and with it being the home opener I think we will have another sellout, another big crowd, and a great atmosphere,” OKC midfielder Gareth Evans said this week.

OKC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen shares Evans’ enthusiasm concerning the opening day matchup.

“I don’t think that we could ask for a better opening game than one against Colorado,” he said. “I think the matchup between Oklahoma City and Colorado Springs Switchbacks is absolutely brilliant. We had three outstanding, very, very intense games against them last year, so personally, for the fans, for myself, for Colorado, for us, I could not ask for a better opening game.”

The last time the two clubs met was equally as thrilling as Saturday’s season opener has the potential to be.

With a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line, Colorado Springs entered the game as a third-seed fresh off a 2-0 victory over Seattle Sounders FC 2 in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, while OKC, a club nearly unbeatable at home, entered the affair as a second-seed in its first playoff appearance.

It was the teams’ third meeting of the season, with the previous two setting the stage for a classic. In April, Danni König spoiled the Switchbacks’ home opener in dramatic fashion after he scored a winner in stoppage time to seal a 2-1 victory for Energy FC. Colorado Springs played spoiler in September thanks to a converted penalty in stoppage time by Luke Vercollone that made it 3-3, and allowed the Switchbacks to steal a point on the road.

The meetings inspired a mutual respect between the two teams. The palpable tension heading into the playoff game produced an atmosphere between the two that had all the hallmarks of a budding rivalry.

“[There was] a rivalry to some extent,” said Vercollone. “Considering the crazy ending to the game in Oklahoma, and also when we played them at our home opener at the start of the season that they won at the last second, it definitely built up some motivation and intensity, and rivalry there, but all out of respect.”

Evans felt similarly heading into the playoff matchup.

“There was definitely a rivalry there, because every time we played them it was close competition,” he said. “There was never an easy win for either team."

Evans’ statement rang true for the third matchup between the two teams, as they put quite the show in front of more than 6,300 fans.

Colorado Springs struck first thanks to a Vercollone goal in just the sixth minute.

“After I scored, I felt really good,” said Vercollone. “I think our team felt good with the position we were in, being ahead a goal on the road. Unfortunately we let up a goal right before halftime.”

OKC’s Chuy Sanchez ensured that the home side went into the break level after scoring a header in the waning moments of the first half. It proved to be the last goal scored in regulation.

It was after the end of the first 90 minutes that the already high-stakes game got really interesting as both clubs scored in overtime to send the game to a penalty shootout.

All the players involved were prepared as they could be. Both clubs practiced penalty kicks in the run-up to the game, but no amount of training was able to fully dull the nerves for everyone involved.

“You just never know what can happen in PKs,” said Evans. “All the guys huddled in the middle while taking the PKs. We’re all kind of whispering, ‘please miss, please miss, please miss.’ That kind of thing. I am sure they were doing the same.”

Once the penalty shootout started, Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Evan Newton took over for the hosts. After narrowly missing the first shot of the shootout by Vercollone, Newton saved shots by Martin Maybin and Miguel Gonzalez in the second and fifth rounds to secure the victory for Energy FC and send the club to the Western Conference Final.

“That is why we had those PKs every single day [in practice] leading up to the game,” Nielsen said. “I think the guys felt comfortable. They were confident. It is one thing going out there and practicing with no fans and no one in the stands, and then you come out and there is 7,000 people in the stands. It is different, but again, they knew what they were going into, they were well prepared, and they executed absolutely brilliantly.”

The outcome of the shootout sent OKC’s fans into a euphoria, while the result was heartbreaking for Switchbacks FC and their fans. The game has provided the opening day game between the two clubs with some extra bite and helped create significant buzz around the fixture.

“Yeah, [the loss] is a little added motivation,” said Vercollone. “It is not a primary motivation, nor it is our primary focus, but it adds a little bit to it. That rivalry.”

Though it is guaranteed that there will be no penalty shootout Saturday, the game has all the makings of a thoroughly entertaining season opener as two of the Western Conference’s best teams in 2015 square off.

The Switchbacks will be looking to avenge the playoff loss and grab three points, while OKC will aim to continue to make Taft Stadium a fortress in 2016. The Grid will be there making sure they add to the atmosphere and push Energy FC toward victory, too.

When it comes to Saturday’s matchup, Vercollone isn’t afraid to pull any punches. Although he admits that the Switchbacks are taking each game as they come, he is confident with how the Switchbacks have prepared this offseason and with how the game will play out.

“It is a good opportunity for us to put our stamp on the league early if we can get a good result and just set the tone for the season,” he said. “It is going to be challenging for sure. I am expecting a victory. 1-0 Switchbacks, or 2-1 Switchbacks, that is what I am expecting.”

Predicted outcomes aside, Colorado Springs’ hunger and a raucous crowd are what Nielsen and his squad are expecting.

“It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere out there,” he said. “You know, all the fans are very, very excited for that game. I know my players are very, very excited for the game, and I’ll bet you that Colorado have something that they want to change from last year. They have probably used most of the preseason, when the schedule came out, and used that as a motivation to come here for some payback time.”

With a short history filled with that much drama, the 2016 USL season opener between Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and OKC Energy FC is sure to provide some fireworks on the field.