The Richmond Kickers started off the 2022 season with a bang on Saturday night, registering a resounding 4-0 win over 2021 nemesis FC Tucson. Midfielder Nil Vinyals was the star of the night, scoring two goals and adding an assist to the scoresheet. Two-time defending League One MVP and Golden Boot winner Emiliano Terzaghi and debutant Matt Bentley also scored for the home team as they went top of the table after week 1.
Darren Sawatzky selected a mostly familiar starting 11, with eight returning players in the starting lineup. Richmond debuts were given to outside backs Stuart Ritchie and Stephen Payne as well as defensive midfielder Dakota Barnathan. Jalen Crisler and Nathan Aune anchored the defense in the middle, while 2021 All-League goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald began his fourth season in goal. Zaca Moran and Nil Vinyals rounded out the midfield, and the attack was led by Terzaghi and wingers Jonathan Bolanos and Matt Bolduc.
Throughout the preseason I’ve stressed how important continuity is for a team in League One. Since the league began in 2019, teams with experience playing together have consistently outperformed the competition, and based on week 1 there’s not much reason to think things will be different in 2022. This team not only showed a familiarity with one another, but an increased comfort with Sawatzky’s preferred 4-3-3. The team still shows a comfort in playing without the ball, and I don’t anticipate that we’ll suddenly start having 55%+ possession per game. That’s ok too, possession isn’t everything as long as there’s a distinct plan, and we saw that in droves on Saturday.
Direct attacking is going to be a style we see, especially from the outside backs. For the first goal, you saw Stuart Ritchie take acres of space in the center of the park, single-handedly shifting the attack from the left flank. This gave him the opportunity to slide a pass wide to Matt Bolduc, who was in a prime shooting position. The shot was blocked by a retreating defender, but the Kickers ace, Terzaghi, was right there to redirect the rebound home and give the team their first lead of the season. Fullbacks got involved in the second goal too, this time with Stephen Payne taking part. Dakota Barnathan gathered a loose clearance from a Tucson defender, and quickly found Payne wide on the right. A simple touch and look allowed Payne to pick out Vinyals in the center of the box, where the Spaniard confidently passed the ball into the corner of the net. Two first half goals with very similar looks can only make Darren Sawatzky happy.
The fun continued into the second half for the 4000 in attendance at City Stadium. In the 60th minute, Bolduc played an inch perfect diagonal ball (another staple of this team over the years) to put Jonathan Bolanos into a dangerous 1v1 battle in the box. After Bolanos made short work of his defender at the endline, he found his roommate Vinyals with a quick cut-back pass, and Nil swiftly flicked it into the upper corner for the 3-0 lead. Bolanos taking players on along the left flank was a common sight during 2021, and I’d expect to see plenty more of it moving forward in 2022 as well.
Given that it’s going to be a busy week for the team, Darren brought on substitutes throughout the half. Two of them directly impacted the fourth and final goal of the evening. In a game full of entertainment, midfielder Vincenzo Candela provided perhaps the most unique highlight of the night. In the 81st minute he gathered a header off a throw-in, but maybe not in the way you’d think. He took about four touches, all with his head (!), to maneuver around and through a couple defenders, ultimately laying the ball off for the man of the match, Vinyals. One deft chip later, Matt Bentley was in behind the defender. The rookie striker needed only one touch to hammer the ball past the Tucson keeper at the near post, putting the final exclamation point on a resounding victory.
Overall, this was about as strong a start to the season as one could reasonably expect. Sawatzky emphasized in his post-game interview that there is plenty to work on, but I can’t imagine any fans at City Stadium are going to be turned away by what they saw. Starting off the season with three points, four goals, and 4000 fans suggests a successful 2022 is ahead, and I for one can’t wait to see what is to come.