The 2016 NPSL regular season is coming to a close, and it's all to play for in the final game. With a win or a draw, Sacramento Gold FC clinches a playoff spot. But, a loss means the opposing team gets in, with the Gold likely left out. Here's a preview of tomorrow night's game.
Sacramento Gold FC has followed up a five-game losing streak with a pair of wins, not only getting back in playoff contention, but sitting in the second position in the Golden Gate Conference going into the regular season finale. In its longest road trip of 2016, the Gold showed toughness and fortitude in claiming a 1-0 win over the Portland Spartans. Sacramento followed it up last week with another strong road performance, a 2-1 win over Real San Jose in which the offense shown through (once the sun went down).
Though Sacramento returns home Saturday, it won't be the only team riding a wave of recent winning ways. After starting the season with only three points in their first four games, the East Bay Stompers have earned points in eight of their past nine games, tallying four wins (one of them avenging an earlier defeat to the Gold). The run features a seven-game points streak and a snag of seven points out of nine in three games against the Sonoma County Sol, including last week's 4-3 win after falling behind 2-0 early. Indeed, both Sacramento and East Bay are coming into their season finale showdown with momentum.
More Finale Magic?
A single point is all Sacramento needs to secure a fourth straight trip to the postseason. If history is anything to go by, the season finale is exactly what the Gold needs. Since entering the NPSL in 2010, Sacramento is unbeaten in the last game of the regular season, with four wins and two draws to its name. 2016 will also be the third time in the past four seasons to have the Gold and Stompers meet in the final game. East Bay knows Sacramento is capable of putting on a season-ending show.
After the Gold's 3-1 finale win over the Stompers in 2013, the two teams met on the last day of 2014, with Sacramento coming out on top in a whopping 10-0 scoreline. Last season, the Gold went across the Bay to face CD Aguiluchos USA in the regular season finale, bringing its last day magic with them. Putting on the Gold uniform for the first time all season, Nico Gonzalez scored a hat trick in an eight-minute span in a 3-1 Sacramento win. Gonzalez (and his brother, Sammy) are back, hopefully bringing the magic with them. But, the Stompers are hungry to chance everything and pose a dangerous threat to run Sacramento's playoff dreams.
As their first two games against Sacramento and last weekend's comeback win over Sonoma have proved, the Stompers offense can strike at any time. Leading the attack is a fearsome one-man offensive force: Khalid Arramdani. The Moroccan-born forward can seemingly score in an instant, his speed and skill often creating dangerous chances on their own. Arramdani, who played in Sacramento's 3-1 win over the Burlingame Dragons in the 2016 U.S. Open Cup, always seems to score when he puts on a Stompers uniform.
Arramdani is far from the only weapon. Prince Bere, Eder Guzman, Jovian Amirkiai, and Charlie Swann are among East Bay's enormous offensive threat. Containing them will be a tough task for the Gold defense, which is finding its footing again. Sacramento was a fluke throw-in goal away from posting back-to-back shutouts for the first time in 2016. Players such as Erick Vega are returning to the lineup to give Zach Ulrich, Fernando De Alba, and the rest of the Gold defensive line some much-needed depth. They, as well as goalkeeper John Connolly, will need to be at their best to keep the Stompers off the scoreboard and the Gold in playoff position.
Playoffs or Bust
For the rest of the season, every game is win or go home. The playoffs are one game away, and the Gold's path is straightforward: a win or a draw against the Stopmers punches the ticket. Furthermore, a win coupled with a loss by Sonoma in one of its last two games means Sacramento will finish second in the Golden Gate Conference and host a first round game. However, a loss means the Gold will need the Sol to lose both games. As that prospect is unlikely, Sacramento could just as well kiss its playoff hopes goodbye.
Last season's heartbreaking playoff exit left a bad taste in the Gold's mouth. This year saw Sacramento go on a five-game losing streak, which would normally kill any season. With a win or a draw tomorrow night, the Gold can put the latter behind them and get a chance to avenge the former. With its back against the wall, Sacramento must get the job done. Will Sacramento finish the job and punch its playoff ticket in front of the home fans? Will East Bay spoil the party and make history of their own by clinching the club's first ever postseason appearance? We'll find out at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 2 at Capital Christian High School.