Looking Back: Gold vs. Aguiluchos

Sacramento Gold FC will make its third consecutive appearance in the West Region Final Saturday night in an attempt to reach the NPSL National Semifinals once again. The game will also be the third time the Gold will face CD Aguiluchos USA, Sacramento's lone remaining hurdle to back-to-back West crowns.

The first two games between Sacramento and Aguiluchos were both extremely memorable, albeit in vastly different ways. The first was ruled by physicality and controversy, while the second featured a historic individual performance. Let's take a look back at the regular season matchups between the two squads.

Sat, May 9: CD Aguiluchos 2 @ Sacramento Gold 2

SAC – Josue Araiza 8’ (Unassisted)

CDA – Devin Collins (Unassisted) 45’

CDA – Adan Martinez (Ross Middlemiss) 48’

SAC – Andrew Robles 50’ (Unassisted)

The two teams first met at the halfway point in the season for each club. Despite a stellar start to the season, Sacramento was coming off a 3-1 loss to Real San Jose and a 1-1 tie with Portland Spartans FC. Aguiluchos, meanwhile, had won three of its last four, including a 5-1 victory over Portland and a season sweep of FC Tacoma 253. While the Gold was looking to right the ship at home, Aguiluchos wanted to grab another impressive road win.

Josue Araiza got the crowd Capital Christial High School on its feet early. Araiza pounced on a rebound of a shot which hit the crossbar, scoring in the first ten minutes of the game. However, the Gold offense stalled for the remainder of the half. Aguiluchos was rewarded for a streak of good chances when Nicolas Brioso was called for handball in the box in the final minute of the first half. Devin Collins buried the penalty to send the game into halftime tied at 1-1.

Aguiluchos kept the momentum going early in the second half, taking the lead in the 48th minute. Ross Middlemiss played sent a through ball up the middle, to Adan Martinez, who slotted it home to make it 2-1. Only two minutes later, Sacramento would respond from a free kick. Danny Mititelu’s attempt was saved by Jesus Morales, but it wasn’t clean. Andrew Robles jumped on the rebound and poked it in to tie the game at 2-2.

In the 61st minute, Rene Piña was issued a yellow card for arguing with the center official Brian Ward. When Ward then pulled out a red card, seemingly ejecting Piña for a second yellow, the controversy began. It came from doubt over whether Piña had received a yellow card earlier and was thus eligible for a double yellow ejection in the first place. After about five minutes of confusion and delay, Ward sent Piña off the field and Sacramento down to 10 men.

Afterwards, the game, which had already been fairly physical, was ramped up even more. As the hard hits and strong challenges kept coming, the offenses kept generating chances. However, none would fall. After Max Herrera made an incredible save to deny Middlemiss in the final minute, it looked as though the game would end without much further incident.

As the final seconds ticked down, a foul was whistled for after 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. This brought together players from both teams and the officials, who separated Martinez and Santiago. While he was being separated, Santiago got into an argument with Danny Lomeli, getting closer until he head-butted the Sacramento defender. Somehow, Ward decided to not issue Santiago, or anyone else for that matter, a card in an altercation which resulted in a five-minute delay.

The scuffles didn’t stop once the final whistle had been blown. After the game was concluded, Santiago got in the face of Ivan Mursac, head-butting a second Gold player in the last few minutes. As the two teams had to be separated, no cards were issued as all parties eventually cleared the field. Despite the numerous offensive attempts and amount of card-worthy challenges, the game would end in a 2-2 draw.

Sat, June 27: Sacramento Gold 3 @ CD Aguiluchos 1

SAC – Nico Gonzalez (Penalty Kick) 40’

SAC – Nico Gonzalez (Free Kick) 45’

SAC – Nico Gonzalez (Unassisted) 48’

CDA – Ross Middlemiss (Adan Martinez) 80’

The two teams met again at Raimondi Park to conclude the second half of the regular season. Since their wild draw in May, Sacramento and Aguiluchos had done enough to clinch at least the wild card spot in the 2015 West Region Playoffs. However, there was still a lot to play for in terms of seeding. Sacramento, having won three of its past four, needed a win over Aguiluchos to secure a home game in the first round. Aguiluchos, who had their four-game winning streak snapped in a 3-1 loss to the Sonoma County Sol, needed only a draw to avoid being given the lowest seed in the tournament.

Unlike the previous meeting in Sacramento, it was Aguiluchos who got off to a hot start. Middlemiss had a close, spinning effort stopped by a great effort from Piña. Middlemiss again almost put his team on board in the 18th minute, getting a head on a corner kick. However John Connolly was able to make the big save.

Sacramento got its first big chance in the 25th minute when a cross from Araiza on the right side was misplayed by Jesus Gomez. Both Robles and Nate Nugen had opportunities to get it in, though both were blocked by defenders. Afterwards, the game began to develop its offensive flow, with both teams having a series of good chances on goal. Connolly stopped a dangerous chance by Simon Rawnsley in the 38th minute, with Aguiluchos regretting the miss minutes later.

In the 40th minute, Nugen was taken down in the box and the Gold was given a penalty kick. Nico Gonzalez, making his season debut for Sacramento, stepped up to spot. Gonzalez blasted the shot by Gomez, but the center official signaled a player for stepping into the box too early, which meant a re-kick. Nonetheless, Gonzalez buried the second attempt as well to make it 1-0 for the Gold.

Sacramento would put the game out of reach soon after. The Gold was given a free kick about 25 yards from goal in the last minute of the first half. With players from both squads anticipating a lob to the center of the box, Gonzalez instead launched a rocket which flew into the left corner and doubled the score at 2-0. Gonzalez then capped a history three minutes into the second half, stealing the ball from a defender and chipping the ball over Gomez to make it 3-0 for the visitors. Gonzalez's stunning, eight-minute hat trick was one of the fastest in league history.

After a few good chances for each side afterwards, the rain began to fall. With it, so did the number of quality chances. The next good opportunity for didn't come until the 80th minute, when Middlemiss gave the home fans something to cheer about. Taking a through ball from Martinez up the middle, Middlemiss chipped Max Herrera, who had replaced Connolly minutes earlier. However, it proved to only cement the final as a 3-1 win for the Gold. The result gave Sacramento the 4-seed in the West, while Aguiluchos was left with the 6-seed.

Sat, July 25: CD Aguiluchos @ Sacramento Gold

A third meeting between the two clubs was highly unexpected, considering the routes each team had to take to make it happen. After surviving a scare from 5-seed Tacoma in the first round, the Gold reached the final with a strong 3-1 win on the road over the 2-seed San Diego Flash last weekend. Jason Jones has turned it up in the playoffs, leading Sacramento with four goals (two in each game).

Aguiluchos, meanwhile, has pulled off perhaps an even more impressive feat in reaching the regional final. Despite being dealt the all-road card for the playoffs, CDA went into Riverside and handed 3-seed Deportivo Coras USA U-23 a decisive 4-0 loss. Aguiluchos followed it up with a dramatic penalty shootout win over 1-seed Sonoma, despite playing down a man for the majority of the game. Middlemiss (a former Sol captain) scored the tying goal and the winning penalty in Aguiluchos' 2-2 (9-8) victory.

Oddly enough, both teams will be the lowest seed each has faced to far in the playoffs. They've also taken similar routes, with each earning a big win over a Southwest Conference team as well as a dramatic 120+ minute win while playing with 10 men. While the winner will wind up with the lowest seed in the national semifinals (meaning all travel), neither team will care. Sacramento wants to get back to nationals to redeem itself for last season's exit, while Aguiluchos (in their playoff debut) want to keep their magical run going as long as it can.

One unlikely team will earn the 2015 West Region title and play for a shot at a national championship. Will Sacramento earn another trip to the final four in front of what should be its biggest crown of the season? Will the scrappy underdogs pull off yet another upset and continue its dream season into nationals? Find out Saturday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Capital Christian High School.