Portland’s boys’ soccer team celebrates its 1-0 victory at South Portland Tuesday night.

Portland senior Pedro Fonseca plays the ball between South Portland junior Anthony Perron, left, and senior Cooper Mehlhorn.

SOUTH PORTLAND—When two evenly matched boys’ soccer teams square off, the difference is often a matter of inches.

As in one team can send the ball off a crossbar and another can bounce a shot off a post and in.

Tuesday evening at Martin Memorial Field, the host South Portland Red Riots had the bad luck, while the visiting Portland Bulldogs got the fortuitous bounce and earned a pivotal late-season victory.

Portland took a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute, when senior Henry Westphal’s one-timer hit the inside of the near post and found its way into the net.

South Portland looked to answer in the second half, but its best chance resulted in a shot by freshman Alberto Kissaka, which hit the crossbar.

That allowed the Bulldogs to hold on and prevail by a 1-0 margin.

Portland improved to 5-3-3 and beat the Red Riots for the first time in six years as South Portland fell to 7-4 on the season.

“It was a great game,” said longtime Portland coach Rocco Frenzilli. “Two evenly-matched teams. I can’t believe how big and athletic and strong South Portland is. We just wanted to play strong defensively, try to lock it down and see what happened. I’m happy for the kids. They worked hard.” 

Movin’ on up

Both squads had very successful 2017 campaigns and have suffered through some ups and downs this fall.

South Portland stole headlines last fall during a 13-0-1 regular season, which gave the Red Riots the top seed for the Class A South playoffs, but they were upset in the quarterfinals by Thornton Academy. South Portland began 2018 by gaining a measure of revenge with a 3-1 home victory over Thornton Academy. After losses at Gorham (2-0) and Marshwood (1-0), the Red Riots downed visiting Biddeford (5-0), host Massabesic (4-0), host Kennebunk (2-0) and visiting Windham (2-0). After being blanked at Falmouth (2-0), South Portland enjoyed wins at Bonny Eagle (3-1) and at home over Noble (5-0).

Portland, meanwhile, downed host Massabesic (3-1) in the opener, but the Bulldogs then lost at home to Kennebunk (3-1) and Gorham (3-1) and settled for a 0-0 home draw against Falmouth before battling host Cheverus to a 2-2 tie. After erupting for a 7-2 win at Windham, Portland tied visiting Bonny Eagle (0-0) and lost at Sanford (2-0) before bouncing back for a palpitating 5-4 overtime win at Marshwood and a 2-1 home victory over Deering.

The rivals have played a lot of close games over the years (see sidebar, below). Entering play Tuesday, over the past 17 years, Portland held an 10-6-1 edge, but South Portland had taken the past two, including a 1-0 decision at Fitzpatrick Stadium a year ago, and was 4-0-1 in the previous five meetings.

This time around, on a very pleasant October evening (77-degrees at kickoff), the Bulldogs beat the Red Riots for the first time since Oct. 11, 2012 (3-2).

South Portland had the first couple chances, but a left-footed shot from senior Cooper Mehlhorn was saved by Portland sophomore goalkeeper Henry Flynn and Flynn then broke up a rush by senior Dylan Houle.

At the other end, the Bulldogs got a shot from junior Tahn Tiparos, which was saved by Red Riots senior goalkeeper Shippen Savidge. 

After Savidge broke up a feed from Portland senior Keto Tchiputo to sophomore Anselmo Tela, Mehlhorn shot twice at the other end, with the first shot sailing just high and the second being stopped by a sprawling Flynn.

After Tela was just wide on a rush, the Bulldogs took the lead in the 16th minute.

Westphal did the honors as he corralled a loose ball at the top of the box and fired a strong shot a the left post. The ball hit the inside of the post and bounced past Savidge and in for a 1-0 lead.

“I just saw the ball coming and it was a great shot,” said Westphal. “You can’t do much there but hit it. I just hoped it would go in. I was excited it went in.” 

“When Henry hit that shot, who knew it would be the winner,” Frenzilli said. “It was a great ball. He used the post and it worked out for him.”

Portland had a 4-2 edge in shots on frame in the first half and clung to the lead at the break.

In the second half, South Portland pressured for the equalizer, but couldn’t get it.

With 33:45 to play, senior Jackson Linscott missed wide.

With 27:34 on the clock, off a long free kick from senior Aleks Kaurin, the ball came to sophomore Damir Brkic, who twice had shots blocked.

With just over 18 minutes remaining, the Red Riots earned consecutive corner kicks. The first resulted in a shot deflected out, but the second produced a golden opportunity, as the ball came in front to Kissaka, who sent a promising shot on frame, but unfortunately for the hosts, it caught the frame, tipping off the crossbar and over and keeping the score 1-0.

With 15:27 on the clock, Flynn got to a long pass to Mehlhorn just in time.

With 13:30 left, a Brkic free kick to the far post looked promising, but senior Joseph Emery could’t get a head on it.

With 8:10 to play, a long, low shot by Brkic was saved by Flynn and with 3:57 remaining, a long free kick by Kaurin was bobbled by Flynn, but he secured the ball before anyone could bang home the rebound.

Portland’s defense slammed the door from there and the Bulldogs were able to celebrate their 1-0 victory.

“Our defense played great,” Westphal said. “Credit to them.”

“It was a tough one and we knew it would be coming in because (South Portland coach) Bryan (Hoy) always has them ready,” Frenzilli said. “We knew (Kaurin) would hit bombs down the middle. When the ball got in there, I was pleased how we rotated and kept some semblance of order.

“Before we played Marshwood and Deering, we needed to get it together. Now, I’m liking what I’m seeing out there.”

Portland finished with a 7-4 edge in shots. Flynn made four saves.

South Portland had a 4-3 edge in corner kicks and got six saves from Savidge.

“We played well,” said Hoy. “They just got one early.”

Three to go

South Portland (now fourth in Class A South) is back in action Friday at Sanford, welcomes Cheverus in a pivotal contest Saturday and closes at home versus Westbrook Tuesday of next week.

“I think we’re doing pretty well,” Hoy said. “We’ve had some pretty good games. I think we’ve had some tough games against top teams, but I think we’ve done a good job getting better and figuring things out. We learned last year it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season, it’s all about the playoffs.”

Portland (eighth in the Class A South Heals) looks to bounce back Friday when Scarborough pays a visit. After hosting Westbrook in a makeup game Saturday, the Bulldogs close the regular season at Thornton Academy Tuesday of next week.

“We’ve talked about coming together as a team and being a band of brothers,” Westphal said. “We just have to keep playing our game. If we do that, we’ll be pretty strong.”

“We’re starting to work together as a team and that’s huge,” said Frenzilli. “We have more tests coming up. We’ll take it one game at a time and try and get ourselves in the best possible position that we can.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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