In the heat of a race for a postseason berth, with energizing high points and momentum-shifting defeats, Forward Madison FC players have talked in recent weeks about being in a playoff mindset.
That focus will get put to an extreme test on the final day of the USL League One campaign, with a chance to extend the season in the balance.
The Flamingos can claim the final spot in the four-team postseason with a victory Saturday at second-place Lansing Ignite FC. Anything less from the 2 p.m. game means that fifth-place Chattanooga Red Wolves SC can pass Forward Madison with a victory in a 6 p.m. home game against sixth-place Toronto FC II.
Forward Madison had its first chance to clinch last Friday with a victory at FC Tucson, but the teams tied 1-1.
“There’s no other way to have it than to control your own destiny,” Forward Madison coach Daryl Shore said. “We control our fate, and it’s on us. We obviously haven’t made it easy for ourselves. We’re going into a hard place to play against a very good team.
“But at the same time, if we’re going to get into the playoffs you’re going to have to face the best teams in the league. So you might as well try to match up with them before then.”
Forward Madison (11-9-7) has lost its first two games against Lansing (12-5-10) in its inaugural season, 1-0 at home on June 1 and 3-2 on the road on July 9. In the latter, the Flamingos tied the game in the fourth minute of stoppage time through a J.C. Banks goal, only to concede the winner a minute later.
Those are the kinds of results that, in retrospect, look big when a team is counting points in a playoff chase. Forward Madison was in last place after a fourth straight loss left it 2-6-2 through 10 games but pulled its season back by going 6-1-2 in its next nine contests.
Forward Madison FC didn't get the victory that would have clinched a USL League One playoff spot, but a 1-1 draw Friday at FC Tucson put the heat on the only team that can catch the Flamingos.
It has strung together victories only once since then but enters the final week with a four-game unbeaten run.
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“Yeah, it is kind of a roller coaster,” said midfielder Don Smart, who on Tuesday was named to the USL League One team of the week for his equalizer at Tucson. “But at the end of the day, what matters is making it to the playoffs. Once we make it to the playoffs, then we’ve got a different task ahead.”
Smart, 31, is one of the veteran players that have been through high-stakes games like the one Forward Madison faces Saturday.
“These are the moments we brought these guys in for,” Shore said.
Smart, 32-year-old defender and captain Connor Tobin and 30-year-old forwards Paulo Júnior and Banks are among the more experienced figures in the Flamingos lineup.
“It helps with the team, with the experience that a couple of the guys on the team have been to the playoffs, been in the finals and share the experience with a couple of the younger players,” Smart said. “To keep your head mentally straight, to stay focused on the game and what we need to go out there and do.”
Lansing is 8-1-4 at home and has something on the line Saturday, too: It needs at least a point to ensure itself of a home game in the league semifinals next weekend.
Two buses of Forward Madison supporters are heading to Michigan’s capital for the game, and team officials have heard from around 40 other supporters who are planning on making the drive themselves.
Shore said that’s a testament to the support the team has built in less than 17 months since its launch.
“To know that we’re going to have 140 to 150 of our own supporters in the building, in a place where it’s going to be a tough place to go play, I think that’s going to put our guys a little bit at ease and hopefully gives them a little extra inspiration to get out of there with the result that we need,” he said.