DAVID SMITH - Friday, July 1, 2016
The first round of Europa League qualification kicked off Thursday night, with a total of six Americans taking the field as their teams try to navigate their way to the group stage.
Heart of Midlothian FC 2 - 1 FC Infonet Tallinn
Perry Kitchen and Hearts did enough to gain a slight advantage over their Estonian foes Infonet Tallinn on Thursday night, grinding out a narrow win on home soil.
One day after returning to his team from national team duty, the former DC man entered the game as a 79th minute substitute and helped them hold onto the narrow advantage.
The game started off poorly for the rusty Hearts, although their Estonian opponents surely deserved what was their first-ever goal in European competition. In the 21st minute, Jevgeni Harin was lost in the area by the Hearts' defense, and connected on a cross from the wing with a spectacular bicycle kick that left the hosts stunned.
However, the debutants were wasteful with their early advantage, and effectively handed the game to their hosts over the course of the next quarter-hour.
First, Infonet captain Vladimir Avilov committed a careless and unnecessary hand-ball infraction in the 18-yard box while trying to defend a looping cross from Spanish striker Juanma, allowing Hearts' Ghanaian midfield general Prince Buaben to equalize from the spot.
Then eight minutes later, Hearts took the lead when a corner was rebounded by Callum Paterson at the far corner across goal towards the unsuspecting Infonet defender Andrei Kalimullin, who could not adjust quickly enough to avoid the embarrassing own-goal.
With nearly an hour to go, both teams had their chances to add another to their respective totals, although these grew more infrequent as the final whistle approached.
Perhaps wary of his usual starting defensive midfielder's inevitable jetlag, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson did wait until the 79th minute to bring Kitchen into the fold as a late substitute. Nevertheless, the team had no problems in the end to hold onto their 2-1 lead in the end.
Hearts do head into next Thursday's away leg in Estonia with the advantage, needing only a draw to advance, however the away goal by Infonet could complicate things in the case of a 1-0 wi by the hosts.
Kitchen will have had a full week of practice with the team by this point, and could be in line for a full 90-minute shift.
Shamrock Rovers FC 0 - 2 RoPS
Will John started atop the RoPS attack, helping the team pull off a 2-0 upset on the road over their Irish hosts Shamrock Rovers.
Tyler Back was on the RoPS bench as the team's backup keeper.
The Finnish visitors took the lead four minutes before the half-hour after Rovers wastefully allowed an unnecessary corner, with RoPS defender Juha Pirinen's shot taking a deflection off of his teammate Juha Pirinen and into goal.
The hosts hardly looked up to the task, generating scant chances to equalize before their Finnish visitors put the game out of reach in the 74th minute, when Aleksandr Kokko did fine work to set up Janne Saksela for a perfectly-placed shot into the lower-left corner.
With the two-goal lead and away-goals in hand, the Finnish team should have no problems to dispatch their Irish foes in the return leg next week.
Cole Grossman and Stabæk put in a strong shift in Wales, holding their hosts Connah's Quay Nomads to a scoreless draw to keep the next round of qualification in their sights. The result leave the tie on a knife's edge, with Stabaek holding a slight edge heading in the return leg. Any outright win will see them through to the second round, although a non-scoreless draw will favor their Welsh opponents.
Brian Span started and played the full 90 minutes for IFK Mariehamn, but could not prevent them from being overpowered by Odds BK by a 2-0 margin. They have a tall mountain to climb next Thursday when they host their Norwegian foes in the return leg.
Sachem Wilson made his debut for ND Gorica overall professional debut, entering the game in the 85th minute in their 3-0 loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv. They will host the Israeli powerhouse in the return leg on Thursday, needing a minor miracle to overcome the three-goal deficit.
Martin Ontiveros started in the midfield for Jeunesse Esch in their match on Tuesday as the Luxembourgish club lost 1-0 on the road to Irish team St. Patricks. The teams will play the return leg on Tuesday, with the hosts needing an outright win to advance.