By Neil Pierson

Despite a couple strong defensive efforts that saw their opponents manage only one goal each, Puget Sound Gunners FC’s first win of the season remained elusive.

The Gunners, playing with 10 men for much of the second half, managed a gritty, 1-1 draw against visiting Washington Crossfire on May 29 at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila. Two days later at the Northwest Division-leading Kitsap Pumas, the Gunners took a heartbreaking result as Kitsap’s Mike Chamberlain scored in the 90th minute for a 1-0 victory.

The two matches left Gunners FC (0-2-2) with two points through four matches – sixth in the seven-team division – and they’ll have plenty of work to do to reach the top three and solidify a berth in the Premier Development League postseason. The Northwest Division champion automatically qualifies for the PDL playoffs, while the second and third seeds meet for the right to move on.

Against Washington Crossfire (1-1-1), the Gunners had to fight through adversity at several points. The visitors came out with an aggressive attack, controlling much of the possession, and capitalized in the 12th minute with what Puget Sound coach Alex Silva considered a “sloppy goal.”

Jose Ocampo’s cross from the right sideline pinballed around the box, and Matt Poplawski pounced on the loose ball and poked it past Gunners goalkeeper Shane Haworth.

In the 30th minute, however, Haworth made a tremendous stop to prevent a second goal, throwing up his arms for a reactionary save on Hamza Haddadi’s close-range header.

The score stayed 1-0 in Crossfire’s favor at halftime, although the Gunners began creating momentum through the play of midfielder Adam Jones and a more cohesive effort from central defenders Zach Hammond and Declan McGivern.

“We had kind of a sloppy goal in the first half, and that really kind of hindered us,” Hammond said. “But I think, in the second half, we came out real strong. We got a good talking-to in the locker room, and we came out firing.”

It took only five minutes for the Gunners to find an equalizer. Defender Robert Hyams delivered a left-footed cross to the back post, where Hammond was able to chip the ball back across the goal to Chuck Pitts, who nodded it into the back of the net.

“I decided to peel off on the free kick and go back post, and I got up early on the guy who was marking me,” Hammond explained. “It was too tight of an angle to finish, so I just decided to head straight across, and luckily, Chuck was there to punch it in.”

The momentum had clearly shifted with the 50th-minute goal, but the Gunners didn’t get much time to enjoy it.

Defender Kevin Cook had been cautioned in the first half, and in the 61st minute, he was given a second yellow card and sent off after going in high and making contact with an opponent.

Silva immediately changed tactics, shifting to a 4-4-1 formation with Kyle Coffee as the lone forward, and Sam Langston replacing Cook on the back line.

Crossfire had a few chances throughout the final 30 minutes – they came closest to scoring when Beau Blanchard blasted a shot off the post – but Haworth and his defenders were able to stand tall and keep the score level.

The Gunners, in fact, had a few chances to win the game through transition play and set pieces. Midfielder Edgardo Mira directed the attack on several occasions, and substitute forward Alex White gave a tiring Crossfire defense some trouble with his speed and fresh legs.

Haworth, who was the No. 1 goalkeeper for Seattle University this past season, made five saves to help cement the point for Puget Sound.

He said he’s been trying to get back to 100 percent after a knee injury, and he felt good about his first start in a Gunners uniform, crediting McGivern with aiding the defensive organization.

“When he gets communicating, and I get communicating, I think that we are just able to calm the game down and sort of get a good look at the whole field,” Haworth said.

Puget Sound figures to keep growing and getting better as the players get familiar with each other’s abilities.

“We’re still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” Haworth said, “and we made a lot of changes in the lineup the last couple days of practice.

“I think we came out today pretty well – unlucky with the red card – but like we were talking about, we kind of gave up a sloppy goal in the first half, and as soon as we correct that, we’re up one-nil in the game.”

Silva made four changes from the previous match, a 3-3 draw with Lane United FC, and while another tie wasn’t the ideal result, it was good considering the adversity the Gunners faced. Puget Sound received five yellow cards to Crossfire’s one.

“With the circumstances of the game, the boys came in and played,” Silva said. “Like I told them, it’s all about coming in no matter who’s on the pitch and no matter who we’re playing against, always come in and put in a good fight, and play the game.

“Be smart, have good discipline, good shape, and I thought if we’d played with the full 11, we’d have been fine and we’d have gotten this win. But it didn’t go that way.”

The Gunners were hard-done again on May 31 at Kitsap.

With the clock winding down in the second half, neither team had managed a goal, but that changed when Chamberlain, a late substitute, smashed the ball in off an assist from Buba Jammeh.

It was a tough blow for Puget Sound, which looked to have dodged a bullet when Haworth saved Mike Ramos’ 85th-minute penalty kick, which came after the Gunners were called for a handball in the box.

Gunners FC’s next chance to pick up a win comes this weekend with another round of two matches in three days.

On Friday, June 5, Puget Sound travels to face the Seattle Sounders U23s at Sunset Chev Stadium in Sumner. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. The Sounders sit in a tie for third place with four points through two matches.

On Sunday, June 7, Puget Sound will rematch with Washington Crossfire, a 5 p.m. kickoff from Redmond High School.