Preview: Sol in the Season Opener

Sacramento Gold FC begins its 2017 National Premier Soccer League schedule Saturday after a long offseason waiting for redemption. Last year ended on a disappointing note, one the Gold is looking to put behind them. Sacramento's first opponent is also its oldest foe, who's looking to get back to where they finished last season. Here's a preview of tomorrow night's match.

Looking for Redemption

Halfway through the 2016 season, Sacramento Gold FC was sitting pretty on top of the Golden Gate Conference with a U.S. Open Cup win. However, the good vibes turned sour in the second half, with the Gold losing five of its last seven games to miss the playoffs for only the second time in team history. Sacramento has had the whole offseason to think about what went wrong, and plan its path to redemption in 2017. The first step in that journey begins Saturday.

The biggest benefactors of the Gold's collapse were its biggest rivals: the Sonoma County Sol. They went in the opposite direction, reversing a tough start to the season to finish it on top of the Golden Gate Conference. Their momentum carried them through the undefeated Albion Pros in the West Region title game and Chattanooga FC (the national runner up two years running) in the national semifinals. The Sol was less than a half hour from claiming its second national championship, before giving up three late goals to AFC Cleveland and seeing the trophy slip through their fingers. Now, Sonoma wants to get back to the final game and finish the job.

Republic Lessons

Saturday will mark the first NPSL game for the Gold since last season. However, it won't be the first time the squad has been on the field. Just over a month ago, the Gold took on their Sacramento counterparts, the USL's Republic FC, in a preseason friendly. The rust was evident early on, with mistakes leading to two early Republic goals. However, the play was much more even as the Gold settled in. However, the professionals proved to be too tough, putting three more balls in the back of the net before time expired.

Though the loss was a large one, it also came with a bevy of positives the team can take forward into the season. Apart from shaking off the rust, the game also put the Gold in bigger venue (American River College) and a bigger crowd, while pitting them against likely the biggest, fastest, and strongest players they'll face this year. This will come particularly in handy against the Sol, which boasts some taller players on offense and defense. Moreover, several Gold players put in good showings against Republic FC, especially as the game went on. The confidence they can take from the game could propel them through the coming months.

Key Matchup

Last season, the Gold and Sol squared off three times, with Sacramento coming on top twice. The first game saw the defense tested mightily after Sacramento scored early, with the Gold holding on for a 2-0 win. The second game (the only one in Sacramento) saw the Gold put on an offensive showcase, winning 5-1, the largest margin of victory in the history of the rivalry. However, a late first half goal and a controversial penalty call proved too much of a deficit to overcome in the third matchup.

All three first halves shared similarities: the Gold scoring early and the Sol enjoying a big edge in possession. What made the difference was Sacramento's ability to turn defense into offense. The Gold's second goal of the first game came on a brilliant counter attack, while the offensive surge of the second game came as a result of frustrating Sonoma in the defensive third. However, mistakes led to Sacramento falling behind the third time, forcing the Gold to press and leading to the opposite result: Sol counterattack goals. If the Gold defense is up to the task, its offense stands a much better chance of punishing the Sol on the counter, which is a proven winning formula.

Rivalry Renewed

The NPSL schedule makers must've known what they were doing when setting the 2017 season slate. This week's National Game of the Week features the league's most iconic rivalry out west: Gold vs. Sol. The two clubs have combined to win four of the past seven West Region titles, and are the only two current West Region teams to have won a national championship. In fact, the past two times Sonoma reached the NPSL national championship game (2009 and 2013), Sacramento went on to win the West Region the next season.

The stakes have also been raised across the rest of the Golden Gate Conference. CD Aguiluchos USA has emerged as a new power in the West Region, the East Bay Stompers finally broke through last season, and the Napa Valley 1839 are aiming to make their first year a memorable one. Facing those threats while trying to rebound from a season-opening loss to a rival is something both teams are looking to avoid. Will Sonoma take the first step to another title game? Will Sacramento begin its path to redemption with a big win at home? We'll find out at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 25 at Capital Christian High School.