Tomorrow night, the NPSL's best West Coast rivalry adds another chapter to its distinguished history. Sacramento Gold FC hosts its archrival, the Sonoma County Sol, in a matchup which, as usual, will play a big help in deciding the order at the top of the table.
Sonoma sits one point atop Sacramento in the Golden Gate Conference standings with one less game played. If the Gold wants a chance at back-to-back conference crowns, a win over the Sol is required.
Sacramento snatched victory at Sonoma over two months ago in just the second game of the season. Can the Gold replicate their success at home? Here's a preview of tomorrow night's game.
GG Conf: 2nd
Goals Scored: 21
Goals Against: 14
Points per Game: 1.89
Last 5 Games: T-T-L-W-W
Head-to-Head (2015): 1-0
2014 Matchups: 1-2-1
GG Conf: 1st
Goals Scored: 23
Goals Against: 15
Points per Game: 2.25
Last 5 Games: W-W-W-W-L
Head-to-Head (2015): 0-1
2014 Matchups: 2-1-1
Know Thy Enemy
Since the Gold entered the NPSL in 2010, Sacramento and Sonoma have engaged in the fiercest, most competitive rivalry this side of the Mississippi River. Both teams have also come to define success in minor league soccer, with each side boasting national playoff appearances, including a national championship.
Competition between these two teams has always been extremely close. Even after going winless against their rivals for nearly two years, Sacramento still managed to beat Sonoma in last season's West Region title game (avenging its loss to the Sol the year before). These two teams know each other well, and their duels have always gone down in history as a result.
The first game between these two provided one of the games of the year in only the season's second week. Despite a shocking own goal in the first three minutes, the Gold took control in the first half, threatening with several chances before Manolo Piña and Gabe Padilla put the visitors up 2-1 at halftime.
Sonoma came out firing in the second half, throwing wave after wave of attacks and forcing Sacramento's defense to make several close stops. Gold goalkeeper John Connolly managed to hold off the Sol, allowing Piña to clinch it in the 88th minute.
The end result left several questions. Was Sacramento lucky to escape with the win? Would it have been more decisive without the own goal? If the ball had bounced a few different ways, would it have changed the outcome, or would it have been more conclusive? No one knows if they will be answered in the rematch, but the game will likely be another one to remember.
If there's one potential aspect of Sonoma's lineup Sacramento can take advantage of, it's in between the pipes. The normally stable Sol have been anything but in goal, and can almost count the number of goalkeepers used this season on two hands. They began with Robert Doeland in goal, but he was suspended for head-butting a teammate.
The man of the hour now is Arturo Ornelas. Ornelas started strong, posting shutouts in wins over Portland Spartans FC and FC Tacoma 253. However, the Sol has given up nine goals in their past two games (including U.S. Open Cup play).
Sacramento's attack has been strong all season long. However, while the Gold has dominated possession, a lack of finishing has come back to bite Sacramento at times (a few dropped points could've made a huge difference now). The Gold will have to finish their opportunities and press any advantage they can get in the final third if they want to beat the Sol.
Points Crucial for Playoff Push
Tomorrow night's matchup will have a large influence over who gets the Golden Gate Conference's two playoff spots. As it stands, Sonoma's 18 points in eight (out of 12) games has the Sol in first place. Sacramento is in second with 17 points, though the Gold has played nine games. CD Aguiluchos USA and Real San Jose sit tied in third with 16 points, though Aguiluchos has an advantage based on goal differential and games played (eight to San Jose's nine).
If Sacramento wants another conference title, it has to beat Sonoma and win its final two games (against San Jose and Aguilichos, coincidentally). However, it may not be enough. Even if the Gold tops the Sol, Sonoma can still win the conference by beating Aguiluchos, Portland, and the San Francisco Stompers to end the season.
San Jose and Aguilichos, meanwhile, will be playing each other on Sunday (San Jose beat Aguiluchos 2-1 back in April). Regardless of the outcome of their game, a Sacramento win over Sonoma would give the Gold a bit of wiggle room. If not, the Gold will likely have to beat San Jose and Aguiluchos just to make the playoffs.
A lot will be decided these next three weeks. With a lot to play for and every matchup critical, each point won or lost is invaluable. Can Sacramento take a large step towards the playoffs with a win over its arch rival? We'll find out Saturday at 7 p.m. at Capital Christian High School.