(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)
It took a late, late penalty to rescue the result for HFX Wanderers FC, with Stephen Hart’s side recording a 3-2 win over League1 Ontario champion Vaughan Azzurri in the first leg of this first qualifying round of Canadian Championship action in Vaughan.
Mohamed Kourouma scored the game-winning penalty in the 92nd minute of action, with the Azzurri nearly stunning the CPL visitors courtesy of a pair of second-half goals to bring the game back to level pegging.
Facing his former team, Wanderers striker Tomasz Skublak got the party started right away, finding the back of an open net in just the second minute of play, the result of a calamitous goalkeeping error resulting in a turnover while under pressure by the HFX attack.
HFX captain Chakib Hocine, making his club debut, seemed to have doubled the scoring with a powerful header by the half-hour mark, but for a foul adjudged in the build-up to his eventual effort. However, Akeem Garcia would indeed double the Wanderers’ lead by the 39th minute, sending a header past the ‘keeper off a cross from out side, which Mohamed Kourouma crafted using a bit of nifty footwork to burn his opposite fullback on the left.
With a pair of away goals under their belt, the Wanderers seemed set to cruise to an easy first-leg victory, but Azzurri striker Jarek Whiteman got a toe on the end of a cross from the right at the 51-minute mark, just enough of a touch to fool HFX goalkeeper Christian Oxner and get the ball past his lunging frame.
Then, on the hour mark, Ryan Roposo hit a perfectly-weighted right-footed shot past Oxner, picking up a well-timed through pass and beating the offside trap to level the score at 2-2.
But, the Wanderers were handed a lifeline late on, as Raheem Rose conceded a penalty with a late tackle in the box, which Kourouma cooly slotted into the top right corner. The Wanderers take three away goals, and a slim advantage, back to Wanderers Grounds for May 22, the second leg of this matchup. The winning team then takes on Valour FC of Winnipeg in Qualifying Round 2.
Tomasz Skublak (HFX Wanderers)
After a somewhat subdued debut performance, Skublak returned to the lineup and took on his former side looking renewed and confident, finding the back of the net early and providing an outlet up top for his fellow attackers.
Ryan Raposo (Vaughan Azzurri)
Beating the offside trap and finishing with as much poise and composure as Raposo did isn’t easy; it’s a testament to both the quality of the player, and the overall performance of the Syracuse University man, who returned to Vaughan for the summer.
Mohamed Kourouma (HFX Wanderers)
A wonderful little jig opened up the space needed to spot Akeem Garcia for the opening goal, but bursting runs down the flanks, coupled with a team-leading four key passes and three passes, and a game-winning penalty? Not too shabby.