As temperatures rise, so does the fight for the 2016 NPSL Playoffs. Sacramento Gold FC is right in the middle, looking to reverse recent fortunes and get back on top of the Golden Gate Conference. The road to redemption starts at home, where the Gold will host the team currently in control in what may be another instant classic. Here's a preview of tomorrow night's game.
The past several weeks have not been kind to Sacramento. After roaring to a 5-1 start and 15 points, the Gold has stumbled, dropping its last four league matches. The first of those was a 5-3 heart breaker to the very team on the schedule Saturday, CD Aguiluchos USA. After losses to OSA FC, the East Bay Stompers, and the Sonoma County Sol, Sacramento now finds itself out of first place for the first time in two months. The Gold will look to right the ship against a team which hasn't exactly had smooth sailing either.
Following a 5-3 loss to Sacramento earlier in the season, Aguiluchos roared back, winning four of their next five games, capped off with the dramatic second meeting with the Gold. However, they failed to take advantage of Sacramento's slide. CDA only took one point from their next three games, which included home losses to the Portland Spartans and Sonoma. Last week, they finally got back on track with an 8-1 destruction of Real San Jose, pulling into sole possession of first place in the Golden Gate Conference. Though it likely won't be as lopsided, Gold-Aguiluchos III may feature a similar barrage of goals, if recent history is anything to go by.
Honestly, the preview for this game could probably have just been the word "goals" written 800 times. It seems as though every contest between these two teams features as many scores. Over the past two seasons, Sacramento and CDA have been entertaining fans with some incredible performances. A wild, scrappy 2-2 draw . A 3-1 Gold win which included three goals in eight minutes. The heart-stopping 4-3 CDA win in last year's West Region Final. This year's dual 5-3 finishes. When these two share the field, sparks fly.
Over the last five games between the two, Sacramento and CDA have combined to score 31 goals, an average of more than six per game. 23 of those have come in the most recent three games alone, an incredible (nearly) eight goals per game. This offense has also proved to have a flair for the dramatic. 17 of those 23 goals have come in the second half, with 12 coming in the 70th minute or later. Put it this way, the most "boring" meeting over the last two years featured an eight-minute hat trick. With so much at stake this late in the regular season, all signs point to this next matchup between Sacramento and CDA being another thriller.
For Sacramento, the key to a much-needed victory is stopping the two powers behind the Aguiluchos offensive machine: Ross Middlemiss and Simon Rawnsley. Middlemiss, a former NPSL Player of the Year and All-NPSL XI member, is the one behind the wheel, guiding the attack with pristine skill and precision. Rawnsley is the engine, well on his way to winning the NPSL Golden Boot. Rawnsley's hat trick against OSA FC earned him a Mitre Player of the Week honor. His five goals against San Jose last week should have gotten him another.
Both have shown their power against Sacramento this season, scoring in each of the two games. The Gold limited them to one goal apiece in the first matchup, a Sacramento win. The next time around, Rawnsley got two in the first half and in the second, Middlemiss scored twice, including the game-winner in the final minute. Sacramento's defensive line and defensive midfielders will have to be on the top of their game to keep Middlemiss and Rawnsley at bay. Defensive stalwart Rene Piña will return from a suspension, bringing desired depth for the Gold. They will need every bit they can get to get a momentum-shifting result.
Three teams from the Golden Gate Conference will qualify for the 2016 NPSL Playoffs. While San Jose is a distant fifth (eight points back), the top four -- in order: Aguiluchos, Sonoma, Sacramento, East Bay -- are separated by only five points with four games left to play for most. As such, every mistake, dropped point, missed chance, failed challenge, etc. are even costlier. For example, last week, the Gold went from the top spot to one bad result away from the outside looking in.
Even with recent struggles, the Gold still control their destiny in terms of its playoff future. Sacramento can pull even with CDA at 18 points with a win Saturday and, depending on other results, could still finish on top of the conference. On the other hand, a loss would put the Gold's playoff position in danger. Meanwhile, CDA would keep its lead and put themselves in line to lock up the conference title in the last week of the sesaon. Will Sacramento get back on track with three much-needed points? Will CDA keep its ship straightened by breaking Gold hearts again? We'll find out at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 11 at Capital Christian High School.