The 4-seed Sacramento Gold FC outlasted 5-seed FC Tacoma 253, the Northwest Conference champions, through over two hours of physical play in their 2015 NPSL playoff opener. Now, the Gold must recover quickly and travel down to Southern California, where another conference winner, the 2-seed San Diego Flash, awaits in the West Region semifinals.
This matchup of NorCal and SoCal powers is rare these days, though these two teams have met twice in the postseason. Sacramento may have come out on top both times (including last year), but San Diego is motivated to redeem itself and get over a very golden hump. A spot in the 2015 West Region Final is on the line. Here's a preview of Saturday night's game.
Reg. Season Record: 7-3-2
GG Conf: 2nd
Goals Scored: 28 (3)
Goals Against: 19 (2)
Points per Game: 1.92
Last 5 Games: W-L-W-W-W
Head-to-Head (All Time): 3-2
Head-to-Head (Playoffs): 2-0
Reg. Season Record: 9-1-2
SW Conf: 1st
Goals Scored: 35
Goals Against: 14
Points per Game: 2.42
Last 5 Games: W-W-W-W-W
Head-to-Head (All Time): 2-3
Head-to-Head (Playoffs): 0-2
Out for Revenge
The Flash has made the postseason each year since entering the NPSL in 2011. However, each season has ended with a swift exit. The Flash have yet to win a playoff game in the NPSL, though the Southwest Conference champs will be even hungrier to kill two birds with one stone.
It was Sacramento who ended San Diego's 2014 campaign with a 2-1 win in the West Region quarterfinals. Jason Jones scored twice and the Gold defense held off a late Flash rally. The two also met in the regional semifinals in 2011. Again, the Gold came out on top 2-1, with Fernando Cabadas netting the winner with 14 minutes left to play.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons also ended for San Diego at the hands of a Golden Gate Conference power: the Sonoma County Sol. A heartbreaking penalty kick loss in 2012 was followed by a clear 3-0 defeat the following year. With a win tomorrow night, San Diego can avenge last season's loss to Sacramento, get playoff win No. 1, and set up a potential second redemption matchup against Sonoma (this year's 1-seed) in the regional final.
Fatigue vs. Rust
A popular question come playoff time centers around which potential problem a team is left to face (or chooses to face) in the second round. It involves a battle of two schools of thought: taking advantage of the playoff format while weakening your opponent, or having a perceived edge backfire and allowing you to take advantage of an out-of-form foe.
If one team earns a first round bye, it means an extra week of rest and recovery. While you gain your strength back, your opponent has to put an extra game's worth of fatigue and injury on their legs. However, having an additional week off could be a detriment; you may be rusty come game time. Meanwhile, your opponent is already in the playoff mindset, having gathered momentum from their first round win.
The fatigue vs. rust question will definitely be asked Saturday night. Sacramento not only had to play in the first round, but its game against Tacoma went into extra time: an additional half hour. However, a week in between games may be enough to properly recover. San Diego hasn't played since a 2-1 win over Temecula FC on July 1, meaning the home squad hasn't kicked a ball in 17 days outside of practice. But, the Flash can easily shake off the rust and prove to be the better squad.
What will mean more come Saturday night, fresh form (but tired legs) or fresh legs (but rusty form)? The answer will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this regional semifinal.
Defense will also be a critical factor tomorrow night. San Diego's back four (and goalkeeping) finished tied with Deportivo Coras USA U-23 for the fewest goals given up all season in the West Region (14); Sacramento gave up 19. Defense and a pair of 8-1 wins over Temecula helped the Flash attain the highest goal differential (21) in the region as well.
While its attack must bust San Diego's defense, Sacramento's back line must hold off a high-scoring offense with a shorthanded staff. In the waning minutes of the Gold's quarterfinal win over Tacoma, Sacramento's Fernando De Alba was issued a red card during an altercation with an opposing player. As a result, De Alba (Sacramento's consistent starter at right back) will miss Saturday's semifinal due to suspension.
Whoever head coach Ruben Mora, Jr. calls upon to replace De Alba in the starting lineup could play the key role in the Gold's hopes of keeping the Flash offense at bay. Two likely candidates are Danny Lomeli (sliding back from his usual outside midfielder position) and Edric Soltero (effective coming off the bench in the second half of the season). Whoever is picked could be the key piece which decides the battle of defenses, as well as the outcome of the game.
Rare NorCal-SoCal Battle
Tomorrow's game presents an intriguing battle of teams from Northern California and Southern California. As anyone who lives in either half of the Golden State knows, the NorCal-SoCal rivalry represents a fierce clash of cultures and histories. Notable sporting rivalries include Giants-Dodgers, A's-Angels, Earthquakes-Galaxy (the California Clásico), Republic-Galaxy II, Raiders-Chargers, 49ers-Rams (they used to be in Los Angeles), Kings-Lakers, Warriors-Clippers, Sharks-Kings... you get the point.
However, such a NorCal-SoCal matchup is actually quite rare in the NPSL. Due to financial and logistic constraints, inter-conference play is infrequent, meaning such matchups are unlikely to happen outside of the playoffs, with inter-region matchups not happening until the national semifinals. With the exception of this season (every Golden Gate and Northwest team played twice), the overall skill and quality non-conference opponents is unknown until the postseason.
There has only been one NorCal-SoCal matchup so far this season: the other quarterfinal. Sunday, 6-seed CD Aguiluchos USA (Oakland) eliminated the 3-seed Coras (Riverside) 4-0. Using soccer math, Sacramento would be heavily favored against San Diego. However, soccer math never really works because it fails to take into account literally every other factor. Coras played an international friendly against Club América's U-20 team Friday, meaning it was their second game in three days.
The only proper comparison between two teams is when they play on the field, which makes this matchup so highly-anticipated. It could also continue NorCal dominance. A Sacramento win Saturday would clinch an all-Golden Gate West Region Final, as well as the fourth straight season where a team from Northern California represents the region in nationals.
Tomorrow night, a rare matchup will decide one of the two spots in the 2015 West Region Final. Will Sacramento keep its positive momentum rolling to a third straight regional final, or will San Diego avenge last year's defeat and keep Southern California alive? The answers will be revealed Saturday, July 18 at 6:30 p.m. at El Cajon Valley High School.