Ballard FC celebrates winning the Western Conference Final // Photo courtesy of Blake Dahlin (@blakedahlin)
FLINT - One year ago, on July 29, the players for Ballard FC filed home from Valley Stadium hanging their heads. They had just lost, 1-0, to eventual USL League Two champions Ventura County Fusion, thanks to a converted penalty kick from striker Logan Farrington. A magical expansion season was cut out by the best team, led by one of the best players, in the league.
Stas Korzeniowski was not among that group of Ballard FC players. He didn't play for the club at the time - he was with Eastern Conference side Real Central New Jersey. This summer, he decided to join the Seattle side to further his League Two career.
As the season rolled on, and Korzeniowski proved a valuable addition, the only thing that mattered to the club was their pursuit of the trophy at the end of the season. Last weekend, they defeated New Mexico United 3-0 and divisional rivals Oly Town FC 3-0 to head back to the Western Conference Final - once again, against Ventura County Fusion. Farrington, goalscorer against Ballard in 2022, turned in a season as one of the league's very best players, and was coming off a hat trick against SF Glens in a 4-1 victory.
The match opened with the defending champions on the front foot. Forward Abubakar Fofanah put the California side in front first after losing Ballard defenders Lesia Thetsane and Christian Engmann in the box. He smashed it home with authority, and Ventura County Fusion were rolling.
The action died down for a while, as Ballard struggled to retain the ball on the turf, and Ventura looked primed to score a second. Fusion goalkeeper Tetsuya Kadono was called on in the 30th minute after Ballard's Charlie Gaffney slipped behind the defense on the right side and tried to smash it home. The Fusion went into the half ahead and in control.
As the second half began, Ventura County threatened to run away with the game. In the 53rd minute, the energetic Jamar Ricketts got past his marker and was through on goal, but Ballard keeper Lars Helleren ate up the space and shut the opportunity down.
The stop wouldn't mean much for the scoreline, as seven minutes later, midfielder Juan Pablo Alvarez smashed a shot from over 30 yards away onto the underside of the crossbar to double Ventura County's advantage. At this point, the defending champions were well in control, and some of the Ballard FC players that went through this match last season could be seen exhibiting the same desperation, and the same futility.
Stas Korzeniowski was not one of those players. He's never played in this tie before. In the 82nd minute, he pounced on a loose ball in the box after Lesia Thetsane went to ground and penalty shouts rang out from across the pitch. the striker eliminated any need for a penalty attempt as he halved the lead with eight minutes left.
Using all eight of those minutes to try to find an equalizer, the Bridges sent a searching long ball toward the box, which met the hand of a Ventura defender. The referee pointed to the spot, and Korzeniowski once again stepped up to take the spot kick. He coolly slotted it home, and the match was level after two goals from the New Jersey native in just eight minutes.
In the first half of extra time, the striker didn't waste a moment - he spun past his marker just three minutes into the extra period, and completed a hat trick only eleven minutes after scoring his first goal of the match. His performace gave Ballard their first lead of the match, and now all that was left to do was preserve the lead.
Gaffney added to the advantage in the 103rd minute with a goal that rivaled Alvarez's attempt from earlier in the match. What was a 2-0 scoreline in Ventura's favor just 20 minutes earlier was now a 4-2 score favoring Ballard FC. The Fusion refused to go away - they managed to pull one back just before the half time whistle in extra time to make it 4-3, and an attempt from Logan Farrington was blocked on the line at the stroke of half time.
The second half of extra time was all business for Ballard, as they preserved their lead and survived until the final whistle, as they were crowned champions of the Western Conference.
They'll face the winner of Des Moines Menace and Flint City Bucks on Sunday, with a trip to the League Two Final on the line.
VCF - Fofanah 7'
VCF - Alvarez 60'
BAL - Korzeniowski 82'
BAL - Korzeniowski 90'+1
BAL - Korzeniowski 93'
BAL - Gaffney 103'
VCF - Lopez 105'