The morning of Saturday April 2nd felt like a holiday. There was a hopefulness in the air, blended with a slight sense of nervousness and uncertainty.
It was the first ever NPSL match-day for the North County Battalion. Kickoff was scheduled for six o’clock in San Bernardino, with the team bus leaving Old Town San Diego just before noon. That bus was to be filled with players, coaches, staff, and fans alike, together in one common goal, bringing home a win from that night’s encounter with So Cal SC. The bus precariously made its way out of the parking lot, narrowly avoiding contact with a few different parked cars in a very tight Transit Center lot. By the skin of their teeth, the members of the Battalion were off and running.
On the Thursday before the match, Battalion Head Coach Ryan Guy identified his three keys to success for Saturday night. The final key was the one on which he elaborated the most. Guy said that the team must figure out a way to “eke out” a result on the road, and do anything and everything possible to take all three points in this historic match for the club.
“There needs to be a willingness to simply find a way, no matter what,” said Guy. “I want to see us eke out every moment, and find a way to win every battle on the field. If every individual thinks this way, the team will be stronger as a result.”
After a stop in Escondido to pick up the rest of the crew, the bus was back on the highway, heading north in excruciatingly slow fashion. Unexpected road closures and mass backups had the Battalion at a standstill for much of the next three hours. There were moments when some on the bus wondered if they would even make it to the destination on time. They would. Somehow. Someway.
As the bus continued on its slow-motion northbound path, most of the passengers, including all of the Battalion players, were entranced by what they were watching on small smart-phone and tablet screens. El Clasico, the most watched and highly publicized club soccer match-up in the world certainly lived up to those descriptions, as a few dozen people in a bus on a Southern California highway crowded around a handful of scattered five inch screens, joining in with close to 400 million other soccer fans around the globe who were simultaneously watching Barcelona host Real Madrid.
One might be inclined to smile at the sight of grown men, strong and highly competitive athletes on a game-day, looking like happy children as the likes of Messi, Suarez, Ronaldo, Bale brought heat to their phones and smiles to their faces. Real Madrid, in rather miraculous form, came from behind to win El Clasico 2-1, grinding out a result on the road with an oh so classic scoreline, and some mesmerizing moments of footballing individuality. The Battalion boys enjoyed every second.
When the bus finally arrived in San Bernardino, it had to fit through a relatively skinny passageway to get the players to the dressing room. The bus came quite close to hitting a fence. It made it through.
Spring was in full effect as the evening entered the five o’clock hour, with kickoff just sixty minutes away. Wispy cirrus clouds were scattered throughout a mostly clear blue sky that blended with the purple and brown hills looking down on the stadium. The setting was serene, but the soccer was to be nervy.
In that Thursday interview, Ryan Guy spotlighted three Battalion players. They first two were Esteban Reyes and Nelson Pizarro, who Guy said “would bring that flair and quality in the attacking third, especially in the absence of the injured Adam Meltz and Sergio Ortiz.” The other player Guy spotlighted was Berrick Rastok, lauding his grit and tenacity in the midfield.
So Cal SC, clad in bright orange jerseys, dominated possession early, and had the lion’s share of the chances in the first 45 minutes. However, just over ten minutes before the break, Rastok put pressure on a So Cal player in possession, forcing him to play a sloppy pass that ended up at the feet of Pizzaro. That exciting 20 year-old winger named Esteban saw an opening and darted through the So Cal back-line, latching onto a gorgeously clipped and perfectly weighted through-ball from Pizzaro, an accomplished professional player ten years his senior. Reyes took two touches toward goal and slotted one past the keeper with the inside of his right foot, calmly scoring the first competitive goal in North County Battalion history.
The traveling fans went wild, the words “North County Battalion” sung to the tune of Seven Nation Army, echoed all around the stadium. The small home crowd looked equally stunned by the goal and by the boisterous visiting supporters.
The hosts missed two massive opportunities to equalize in first half stoppage time, and came out for the second 45 with a fierceness in their eyes.
Ten minutes after the restart, the visitors were awarded a free kick just off the far right sideline about 40 yards from goal. Juan “Kichi” Perez, another crafty veteran on an incredibly diverse squad, both in terms of age and culture, stood over the dead ball. With players battling for space in the box, the left-footer from Tijuana whipped an exquisite service right into the danger area. Amidst the application of ample pressure, a So Cal defender lunged to clear the ball and put it straight into his own net. The score was 2-0! It looked like cruise control time for the Battalion.
Just three minutes later, So Cal smacked home a goal of their own, a product of a scrappy scramble in the center of the eighteen. No cruise control for NCB. Instead, squeaky bum time.
With momentum clearly on their side, the hosts applied relentless pressure, as the visitors were forced to defend with all their might. There were moments when an equalizer seemed like an inevitability, but the persistence of the So Cal SC attack was met with a bend, but never break attitude from the Battalion. Center-backs Sean Ritchey and Connor Mazolewski were essential in this effort, as was goalkeeper Bryant Vera.
Two minutes of second half stoppage time were added onto the 90, the hosts trying desperately for a tying goal. The boys in orange kept getting closer and closer, but never could crack the code, as the floodlights lit up the turf beneath the Saturday night sky.
Off in the dark distance, a few large fireworks went off, locals indulging in their own brand of weekend fun, adding to the surreal nature of the moment. Back in the stadium, the final whistle blew, and the traveling Battalion fans made their greatest contribution yet. Yellow smoke swirled around the bleachers, as they sang their hearts out one last time for the men on the field. The players, physically drained and mentally satisfied, walked over toward the stands and gave a salute, everyone basking in the glory of the opening day victory, eked out, 2-1, with every last person doing just enough.
It was a special experience for the players, coaches, staff, and fans alike, and as the packed bus pulled out of the parking lot to begin its southbound return trip, there was one last cheer to be had.
“Hey boys… We’re top of the league!” Laughter and shouts of joy. Smiles of satisfaction. Exhalations of pure relief.
The Battalion will take on FC Hasental on April 9th in their home opener at Del Norte High School. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 pm. The following Saturday, they will host Albion Pros, in the first ever NPSL match between the two San Diego County outfits.
The Battalion have some flair. They have excitement. They have the capability to play attractive soccer and entertain spectators. But more important than anything else for a team, they have three points after one match, and the entire trip to San Bernardino followed a formula of humility and hard work, with every person contributing to the grand cause, and making sure that those three points would be sitting shotgun on the bus ride home.
It’s all so true to the name. Being successful as a soccer team means there can’t just be one man or one woman. It must be the whole group, all together for the same fight.
There must be a collective strength in unity. There must be a Battalion.