MADISON, N.J. — At the end of the day — or at the end of the season, rather — only one team in the league actually finishes in precisely the fashion they'd hoped for, with that "finish" being a championship trophy. For the rest, the end of the season is met with some measures of both disappointment and accomplishment, with the balance depending on what the stated goals were from the outset of the campaign.
For some clubs, success is a title at all costs. For others, it's turning a profit at the gate or selling massive quantities of club merchandise. And for others, it's simply staying afloat.
For Kingston Stockade FC, success is about an upward trajectory on the pitch that is matched by the connection to the club felt by the local Hudson Valley supporters.
So viewed from this vantage point, the initial take on Stockade FC's 2017 NPSL season is that the positives outweigh the negatives. And by a heavy measure, at that.
That said, Stockade FC's 2017 campaign ultimately did come to an end on Saturday night in New Jersey, courtesy of a tough 6-3 road loss to Clarkstown SC Eagles in the 2017 NPSL Playoffs Powered By Mitre.
But the results on the pitch tell just a sliver of the story for the second-year Hudson Valley club. The ultra-rare bond between players, staff and fans is what truly dominated the mood on this humid July night.
Yet the final score is always the foremost storyline in sports. As it should be. And in this one, while Stockade FC showed plenty of ability on the turf early on, Clarkstown's skill and physicality ultimately outdid the visitors.
Stockade opened the scoring in the 11th minute, when star attacker Pedro Espindola did his best Arjen Robben impersonation — only with his right boot rather than his left — by cutting inside from the left off of a short corner kick and sending a scorching shot past the Clarkstown goalkeeper to give Stockade a 1-0 lead.
Espindola then doubled Stockade's lead in the 41st minute, courtesy of a penalty that was earned by forward Bruce Jeter. Jeter and Espindola had proven to be a handful for the Clarkstown defense for much of the first half, so it was a tough blow for Stockade FC when Jeter had to be subbed off moments later in the 42nd minute.
Kingston nearly went in to the locker room with a two-goal lead, but Clarkstown scored in the 45th minute to make it 2-1 going into the half.
The goal seemed to give Clarkstown a good bit of confidence, and despite some spirited play from Stockade, the home side mostly took control of proceedings from that point forward. The Eagles scored in the 55th, 60th, 79th, 89th and 90th minutes to reel off five unanswered goals and put the score at 6-2.
It was at this point that the Stockade FC players and 274 traveling fans — a wildly impressive number at this level — could have packed up their boots and drums and slinked quietly away into the night. But that wasn't the case.
And what unfolded from there was truly remarkable, indeed.
After the sixth Clarkstown goal, with the match nearly over and any chance of Stockade making a comeback completely gone, the visiting fans from the Hudson Valley didn't grow quieter in the face of defeat. They somehow managed to get even louder. They began singing with renewed vigor and passion. Led by the Dutch Guard supporters group, it was the fans' way of saying thank you to a hard-working Stockade side that had accomplished more than anyone expected in their sophomore season.
Seemingly boosted by the traveling fans, Stockade captain Jamal Lis-Simmons gave these loyal supporters something legitimate to celebrate. The 35-year-old captain collected the ball off of a corner-kick clearance and confidently blasted a daisy-cutter from some distance to cut the score to 6-3. The lovely strike didn't have much, if any, chance of leading to a Kingston comeback, as it came after the 90th minute. But to see the heart and soul of the team score such a lovely goal with what was nearly the team's final touch of the season seemed a very fitting way to wrap up the 2017 campaign, one that saw the Hudson Valley club defy all odds by winning the Atlantic White Conference title and reach the regional playoffs over clubs from bigger cities like Boston, Providence and Hartford.
Shortly after this point, the final whistle blew and play stopped.
But the Stockade fans didn't.
After the referee's whistle had signaled the end of the match, and both sets of players were shaking hands on the pitch, the away fans continued to sing.
The Stockade players huddled with head coach David Lindholm as he addressed them emphatically in the aftermath of the loss. The away fans continued to sing.
Some of the players tended to tired limbs with the trainer. Others hydrated after a long night. A few chatted politely and shook hands with rival opposing players they knew from the Northeast soccer circuit, as is customary after these matches.
Yet the Stockade fans continued to bang their drums and sing.
The Kingston supporters sang for a good 10 (15?) minutes after the final whistle. Finally, after proper post-match proceedings had been tended to, coach Lindholm and his players were able to walk over to the traveling contingent.
The players then clapped to the fans. And the fans sang back even louder still.
The scene was truly one to behold, and stood for all that's good in the beautiful game. For, this is semi-pro soccer, after all, where players are unpaid and fans sit in metal bleachers in the rain, in small, Jumbotron-free stadiums that don't always have concessions, let alone proper permanent restrooms.
Yet amazingly the scene still didn't stop there. Stockade fans young and old then lined the railing of the stands and the players walked by in single-file fashion, shaking hands with every fan along the way.
At this point, it finally looked like things were over — stadium security had driven over in a golf cart to say the drumming and singing had to stop; they had to turn off the lights and lock up the stadium, after all. But then the players suddenly wheeled around and started gesturing towards the fans. Lis-Simmons and Lindholm and club chairman Dennis Crowley began motioning for everyone to head to the center of the stands. At first it was unclear why, but then it became apparent why they were asking everyone to join together.
It was time for a massive group photo.
You can see the photo at the top of the story. It's a terrific shot; the players standing tall despite the exhaustion of a long night and season; the fans close behind them, still smiling and waving, in full support of the Kingston club no matter where they travel and what the outcome.
It's a photo for the club trophy case, to be certain. One that will stand proudly next to the conference trophy, a piece of hardware that was won in just the club's second season of existence.
Given what was on display in New Jersey on this summer night, one shouldn't be surprised if there's additional silverware to be put on display in Kingston soon. But whether that's the case or not, expect the Stockade fans to show up every time their club takes the pitch. Home or away.
By Randy Kim, Kingston Stockade FC General Manager