Albany Empire drop AFL opener to Philadelphia Soul

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ALBANY, N.Y. — The Albany Empire kicked off its inaugural Arena Football League season at home in front of a sellout crowd at the Times Union Center on Saturday.

The reception to the team was warm, but the play on the field showed room for growth as the defending AFL champion Philadelphia Soul earned a 56-35 win over the Empire.

"It was awesome. It was a dream come true," Empire receiver Collin Taylor said of playing in front of 13,000-plus fans. "Everybody that came here, they wanted to play big-time professional football. ... We obviously let people down a little bit by putting the show on that we did. But a couple days of practice now getting ready to move on to the next [game] and we'll be better. By the next time we get home hopefully everyone comes 13,000 strong and we give everyone a better finish then we did this week."

Honorary captains, former Albany Firebirds legend "Touchdown" Eddie Brown and his son, Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown were on hand for the season opener. Eddie Brown's No. 17 was lifted to the rafters in a retirement ceremony at halftime.

Touchdowns weren't hard to come by for either squad, but costly penalties by the Empire gave the Soul too many additional attempts at scores.

The Soul started the game with a six-play drive, capped by a short touchdown pass from Dan Raudabaugh to Shaun Kauleinamoku. The Empire needed just four plays to respond, using a 26-yard completion from Tommy Grady to Doug McNeil III to setup a 10-yard touchdown catch on a short cross to Greg Carr.

Raudabaugh, an eight-year veteran showed great timing on quick-hitting passes to his receivers, especially to Darius Prince (12 receptions, 112 yards and three touchdowns).

The duo connected for Philadelphia's next two scores, capitalizing on Prince's short-area burst and sure hands. The second score came with 2 minutes and 20 seconds left in the first half. Late in the half, Empire head coach Rob Keefe said when your team receives the ball to start the second half, it's important to be the last team to score. Similar to a two-for-one situation in basketball.

This way of thinking led to an onside kick by the Soul on the ensuing kick with a 21-14 lead. The Empire recovered on the Soul six-yard line, leading to a touchdown pass to Carr, tying the game at 21 with 1:33 left.

With a minute left in the half the clock no longer continuously runs, forcing the Soul to try and drain time and get the last score before the half. The Empire helped the Soul keep the ball by committing three penalties on balls in the air, giving the visitors a first down on each play. The shaky play in the secondary prevented passing touchdowns but allowed the Soul to drain 33 seconds off the clock. Fullback Jeramie Richardson capped the drive with a one-yard run as Empire players dragged him into the end zone in an effort to get the ball back with more time on the clock.

"For me, I'm not going to bash the refs, but I thought there were a couple questionable calls," Keefe said. "I'm burning timeouts if you constantly get another first down. It just hurts me because now I don't have enough timeouts to stop the clock, thus they can be the last team to score in the first half. Those are huge.

"At the end of the day, sometimes it's going to be that way. Part of football and part of life is the human nature that's involved. ... For us there's only been one shutout in arena football history. We know it's going to be high-scoring. You can't keep your head down, you gotta keep your head up but at the end of the day we let them get too many on us."

With a chance to put the Empire in perfect position to score at the end of the half, the Soul's defense showed why they're the defending champs. After two quick completions to Carr, Soul defensive back Torez Jones sat on a comeback route and showed impressive closing speed, breaking on the ball and intercepting Grady's pass. He returned it 18 yards to the Albany six with 19 seconds left. Two plays later Raudabaugh (22 of 37, 236 yards and seven touchdowns) connected with Prince again, putting the Soul up 35-21.

The Empire could not score after taking over with seven seconds left in the half. A backward pass leading to a fumble on the Empire's opening possession of the third quarter led to another Raudabaugh touchdown pass, putting Philadelphia in complete control of the contest.

While the game was out of reach for the Empire during the second half, it still had its share of exciting plays.

After forcing a fourth-down field goal attempt late in the third quarter, the Empire looked as if it had a chance to cut into their two-score deficit after Adrian Trevino missed the 25-yard attempt. The ball bounced off the netting that holds up the crossbar, but the ball was still live, allowing Philly offensive linemen Tivus Neal to scoop up the ball and score.

"It was just one of those things you rarely see," Taylor said. "You try to go over it in training camp, every single scenario that you can get to. And then something comes up in a game that you've never seen or never heard of, and it happens all the time.

"Maybe going out there we could've alerted the returner and say —' hey if this happens and it bounces outside,' — but it's one of those reaction plays. We were excited it was a missed field goal, but even after that we've got to finish the play."

The Empire's final score came on a 48-yard touchdown from Grady (22 of 38, 259 yards and five touchdowns) to Malachi Jones. Jones caught a quick slant, picked up a block downfield and showed blazing speed to race into the end zone. Grady was knocked out of the game with an injury late in the fourth quarter with what Keefe called a "contusion." Backup Mike Fafaul could not led the Empire to points after taking over on the Philadelphia eight-yard line.

The Empire will hit the road next for their first away game, as they take on the Washington Valor Saturday at 7 p.m.

Akeem Glaspie can be reached at aglaspie@berkshireeagle.com, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.


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