The San Diego SeaLions missed winning the Women's Premier Soccer League title last year by just a few fractions of an inch, falling on penalties in the Pacific Conference final to the Orange County Waves, who went on to claim the trophy.
Had the SeaLions pulled that one out, they would have needed two more wins to win their first WPSL crown since 2000 -- and they certainly had a side capable of doing so.
That serves as motivation for Jen Lalor-Nielsen
's team this season, which on Sunday can clinch the Pacific-South title -- and the division's lone playoff berth -- with a tie or win over Beach FC
“Oh, gosh. It's the same core group,” said Lalor-Nielsen, a former WUSA
standout who has been in charge of the SeaLions, one of her former clubs, for three seasons. “They already have the mentality, we were so close last year. Even before starting the season, they set goals of what they hope to achieve this season ... because they have been there before.”
To reach these goals, they'll almost certainly need a result in Sunday afternoon's clash at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. It's one of the biggest and best showdowns in the WPSL this season, with a SeaLions team seeking perfection (they're 5-0-0 and have outscored opponents, 19-1) taking on a first-year foe that's lost just once, to San Diego in a game that could have, and perhaps should have, gone the other way.
Beach FC, from Long Beach, first must beat Ajax America Women
on Saturday, and it needs to be mindful of goal difference. The SeaLions have the advantage, plus-19 to plus-11, and that's the No. 2 tiebreaker in determining the division's winner.
“You want to win big [on Saturday], but if we go in with that mentality and we try to score three-pointers, it's not going to work for us,” said Beach FC coach Mauricio Ingrassia
, also the head coach of Long Beach State's women's team. “We have to win the game first. Obviously, if you're in a position where you continue to go forward, that's fine. At the same time, we can't spend all our energy Saturday and have nothing Sunday. So it's a really tricky situation.”
Success for Beach is simple. Beat Ajax, then beat San Diego by three goals. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head results, and aggregate is in play. The SeaLions won the first meeting, 2-0, on a striking free kick from Rosie Tantillo
and Nikki Petracca
's follow-up moments later.
“I thought we controlled the majority of [the first encounter],” Ingrassia said. “They hadn't seen much of the ball, then we make a mistake at the back, gave a free kick near the goal, and Rosie just buried it. A minute later they got another one.”
Lalor-Nielsen says the “score was not indicative of how the game actually went.” Beach, she says, “had many opportunities to score. ... We put away our chances, and they didn't. That's really what it came down to.”
Beach has three Women's Professional Soccer veterans -- UCLA products Kristina Larsen
and Lauren Barnes
plus Megan Jesolva
, who grew up in La Mirada -- and relies heavily on center midfielders Lindsay Bullock
and Shawna Gordon
, who starred for Ingrassia at Long Beach State. Center back Chelsea Patterson
, from Cal State Fullerton, anchors a backline that hasn't conceded aside from the SeaLions' goals, and UC Santa Barbara alum Jacqui Simon
, expert at linking the lines.
Larsen has been spectacular, scoring nine goals in four games, five of them in a 6-0 victory over LA Vikings
two weeks ago. Part of her motivation: She was with the OC Waves last year but missed the stretch run after breaking her collarbone against the SeaLions.
“Larsen has been lights out ...,” Ingrassia said. “Different class.”
The SeaLions don't have quite the star power, Tantillo aside, but they've returned more than a dozen contributors from last year's team, and they're a committed bunch.
“Beach has some personality players, for sure. Players who were recently in WPS,” Lalor-Nielsen said. “We don't have any of those. Our team really comes down to a team. Not of individuals, but as a team.”
Is it better than last year's group, the only team to beat the OC Waves, who went defunct during the offseason.
“I feel as a whole, this team is better,” Lalor-Nielsen said. “This is my third season [as coach], and I played for the club. All my years around the club, this is the best team we've ever had.”
There's great depth, and the team has prospered behind big performances from Petracca, a San Diego-area player who starred in junior college soccer, from UC Irvine standouts Sarah Devine
at the back and Judy Christopher
in midfield, and from Cal State San Marcos goalkeeper Kaycee Gunion
Tantillo, a USC alum who played a couple of games for Gold Pride FC when they won the WPS title in 2010, is the star. She has scored in all five SeaLions games, nine in all.
“She brings another level to the game, because she has played at a high level,” Lalor-Nielsen said. “Of course, she's always the focal point of what our team is all about. But I feel the difference is the commitment level. People are committed to come to practice, to make the trips for road games. Last year it started changing a little. This year completely. The whole team is committed.” BEACH-SEALIONS ISN'T the only big WPSL game this weekend. Also vital:
- Five teams are in a tight battle for the one playoff spot out of the Pacific-North, and the slate includes two showdowns: West Coast WildKatz at California Storm on Saturday and Central California HEAT at North Bay FC Wave on Sunday. Cal and North Bay also have games against the San Francisco Nighthawks.
- Phoenix Del Sol (2-0-0) and Phoenix U-23 (2-0-0) head to Utah for games against Salt Lake United (4-0-0) and Utah Starzz (2-2-0) as the Big Sky North race comes into focus. The teams meet up next weekend in Phoenix, and only the divisional champion heads to the playoffs.
- The Midwest Division title likely comes down to two meetings -- Sunday and Tuesday -- between the Madison 56ers (3-0-0) and FC Milwaukee Nationals(3-0-0). The first meeting is in Wisconsin's capital, the second in Milwaukee.
- Aztec MA (6-1-1) and Seacoast United Phantoms (4-1-3) are in position for the Northeast Atlantic-North's playoff berths, but New England Mutiny Reserves are in striking distance. Aztec and the Phantoms play Saturday.
- The top two teams in the Northeast Atlantic-Mid -- Syracuse Lady Knights (5-1-2) and NYAC (4-1-2) -- face off Sunday. Both figure to reach the postseason.
The Women's Premier Soccer League
(WPSL) is the largest national Women’s Soccer League in the world. With more than 70-plus women’s soccer teams, the WPSL is the leading amateur soccer league in America. The league is sanctioned by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) as an affiliate of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The WPSL's mission is to provide opportunities to further the women’s soccer game for the aspiring professional, international-level players and passionate amateurs. The WPSL season brings affordable and quality family entertainment to the community, displays positive role models for our youth and offers the essential connection between youth and pro women’s soccer in America.
All Photo Credit: Aaron Jaffe