Tomorrow night, the Sacramento Gold wraps up the 2015 NPSL regular season with a highly-anticipated road match. A rowdy crowd awaits at Raimondi Park, where the Gold and CD Aguiluchos USA will play a rematch of one of the most physical games this season.
While both teams have already wrapped up a playoff spot, the result of Saturday's game will decide the remaining playoff positioning in the West Region. Can the Gold secure a home playoff game with a win in hostile territory? Here's a preview of tomorrow night's game.
GG Conf: 3rd
Goals Scored: 25
Goals Against: 18
Points per Game: 1.82
Last 5 Games: L-W-W-L-W
Head-to-Head (2015): 0-0-1
2014 Matchups: 2-1
GG Conf: 2nd
Goals Scored: 27
Goals Against: 15
Points per Game: 2.00
Last 5 Games: W-W-W-W-L
Head-to-Head (2015): 0-0-1
2014 Matchups: 1-2
Dual Hot Streaks
Both teams are entering this matchup on a bit of a hot streak. After stumbling in the middle of the season, Sacramento has won three of its last four games to put itself in a playoff position. It started with the Gold's most recent road game, on May 17 against FC Tacoma 253. The wild 4-3 win, which featured three separate comebacks from the Gold, was followed by 3-1 wins over the San Francisco Stompers and Real San Jose.
Aguiluchos, meanwhile, had their four-game winning streak snapped by the Sonoma County Sol last week. Stretching back even further, Aguiluchos hadn't lost a game since April 11 against San Jose and had won six of their last seven games, with the one exception being a 2-2 draw against Sacramento.
Physicality and Controversy
That game proved to be arguably the most physical and controversial game of the entire NPSL season so far. Scoring-wise, it was a back-and-forth game, with the Gold taking the lead in the first 10 minutes. Aguiluchos came back with goals just before and just after halftime, though Sacramento sealed a tie with 20 minutes remaining.
Throughout the game, the play was extremely physical, with many fouls (but few yellow cards) shown throughout. With a half hour to go, defender Rene Piña was shown a yellow card and then a red card by center official Brian Ward, signaling a double-yellow ejection. The problem: it was not clear if Piña had received a yellow card earlier. Despite protests, Piña was ejected.
As both teams looked to break the tie late, the physicality grew even more. In stoppage time, Cuco Martinez and Miguel Santiago went down together. As the two got to their feet, Santiago leaned down, grabbed Martinez by the legs, and tackled him to the ground. During the separation, Santiago got into an argument with Danny Lomeli and headbutted the Sacramento defender. Despite all this, Santiago (or anyone else) was carded, as scuffles continued even after the final whistle.
While physicality and hard fouls follow Aguiluchos wherever they go, one Sacramento player seems to be the focal point of their attacks: Cuco Martinez. This dates back to a road game incident last year, when a confrontation between Martinez and an Aguiluchos player led to a near brawl and the Gold having to be escorted off the field by police.
It proved to be of consequence earlier this season. Of all the Gold players to get roughed up by Aguiluchos, Martinez was the clear leader in fouls against. In addition, it was Martinez getting literally taken down late that instigated the near bench-clearing brawl.
With Sacramento returning to Raimondi Park for the first time since then, the Aguiluchos fans are not exactly expected to give Martinez a warm welcome back. The home squad will be physical. Will their physicality send the match into chaos, or will it allow for the Gold to take advantage of a non-focused team. Some bruises and bumps could decide this.
Playoff Positions TBD
No matter the result Saturday night, both teams will be in the postseason, the third straight for Sacramento and the first ever for Aguiluchos. Both teams have enough points to get the sixth and final West Region spot ahead of the third place team from the Southwest Conference. What does matter is the final positions.
Neither team can catch Sonoma, which has clinched the Golden Gate Conference title with 27 points. Aguiluchos sits in second with 22 points, with Sacramento third with 20. If Sacramento wins, the Gold would clinch second place in conference, with Aguiluchos relegated to wild-card status. A draw or Aguiluchos would see the reverse happen.
With the Golden Gate and Southwest leaders earning first round byes, seeds 3-5 will be determined on points between the second place teams, as well as the first place team from the Northwest Conference. Unlikely to overtake the second place Southwest team or be overtaken by the first place Northwest team, the second place Golden Gate team will almost certainly be seeded fourth.
Simply put, if Sacramento wins, they get the fourth seed and will host the first place Northwest team in the first round. A tie or loss will have the Gold in sixth place and on the road against the second place Southwest team in the first round. Either game would take place on Saturday, July 11
Though both teams are securely in the postseason, a lot is on the line when Sacramento and Aguiluchos meet Saturday night. Who will win? How will the 2015 West Region playoffs be laid out? Will either team finish with all 11 men? We'll find out Saturday at 8 p.m. at Raimondi Park.