Preview: At the Halfway Point

Sacramento Gold FC crosses the halfway point of the 2016 NPSL season this weekend. A road win would pad Sacramento's lead atop the Golden Gate Conference. However, the opponent is the very team trying to reel the Gold in. Here's a preview of tomorrow night's game.

Fight for First

As mentioned above, Sacramento Gold FC sits in first place in the Golden Gate Conference. After dropping the season opener to Real San Jose, the Gold has since reeled off five straight wins, including two victories over the rival Sonoma County Sol, a redemption game against San Jose, and two shutouts. Those clean sheets (plus 18 goals scored) contributed to a +11 goal differential and 15 points for Sacramento. But, a slip up Saturday could prove quite costly.

Since losing the NPSL National Game of the Week to Sacramento a month ago, CD Aguiluchos USA has gone undefeated, earning some valuable points of their own in the process. Wins over San Jose and the East Bay Stompers (plus a 4-0 thumping of OSA FC) have Aguiluchos comfortably in second place with 11 points and a +6 goal differential. A redemption win of their own would cut Sacramento's conference lead to only one point with half the season left play. Conversely, another Gold victory would increase the lead to seven points with half the season finished. A three-point result for either team will provide crucial later on.

Goals Galore

If recent history is anything to go by, Saturday's match will be yet another barn burner and score sheet filler. In the last four (and five of the last seven) games between the two, Sacramento Gold FC and CD Aguiluchos USA have combined to score at lease four goals. In those last four alone, a whopping 23 goals have gone into the back of the net. It started with last year's two regular season contests: a 2-2 draw in Sacramento followed by a 3-1 Gold win in Oakland.

Then, it got cranked up to 11. In the 2015 West Region title game, a slew of goals in the last half four ended with Aguiluchos lifting the trophy. In the first matchup of 2016, the scoring fury was in favor of Sacramento, a 5-3 win for the home squad. The past two games have seen 15 goals, 12 of which have come in the second half (six each game). Those contests have seen multi-goal comebacks, spectacular strikes, an eight-minute hat trick (from Sacramento's Nico Gonzalez), and a series of hard, physical play throughout. With a lot at stake Saturday, who knows what will be written in the next chapter?

Key Matchup

One recent aspect which will definitely continue Saturday is the Gold defense's main mission: stop CDA's big two. Forwards Ross Middlemiss and Simon Rawnsley wreak havoc against any team they face, Middlemiss' skill and smarts combining with Rawnsley's speed and power to form a nearly unstoppable force. Both Middlemiss, a former NPSL Player of the Year and All-NPSL XI member, and Rawnsley, named a Mitre National Player of the Week in each of the past two seasons, scored the last time Sacramento and Aguiluchos met.

How well the Gold defense can limit the CDA strikers could very well determine who takes home three points. Good communication and positioning will be a necessity, particularly between the center backs and their outside counterparts. Sacramento's outside backs frequently join in the offense and often end up as critical contributors to goals, Andre Brown's sideline run to set up Manolo Piña's second goal last week a perfect example. Staying back completely to cover Middlemiss and Rawnsley would take away this valuable offensive support. When they do go up, the center backs need to communicate in case of a counter attack. The defensive line balancing this well will be crucial.

The Open Cup Question

Tomorrow night's game will have an unusual factor for both teams. Sacramento and CDA have qualified for the 2016 U.S. Open Cup. The Gold will host the Burlingame Dragons at Capital Christian High School, while Aguiluchos will travel to face San Francisco City. Starting now, Sacramento and CDA will need to carefully manage their rosters and rely on their depth. Both teams enter in the First Round, which will be held on Wednesday, May 11 (four days after this game).

For as long as either team is in the Open Cup, two-game weeks will be the new norm. No league game this early in the season (especially not one as crucial as mentioned above) is worth completely resting your starters. However, depleting your lineup and tiring your key players out are not advisable when you're about to face a tough non-league opponent in the most prestigious soccer tournament in the country. How will both teams play this one out? Can Sacramento get a sixth-straight win and create more cushion at the top of the conference? Will Aguiluchos get some redemption and close the gap? We'll find out at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 7 at Raimondi Park.