Best of the 2016 NPSL West Region Playoffs

Best of the 2016 NPSL West Region Playoffs

The Sonoma County Sol are doing their best to replicate history.

The 2009 NPSL National Champions are off to the final four here in 2016, winning three straight playoff matches to be crowned the champions of the West Region. Soccer Nation’s Nate Abaurrea is here with the three best stories from three incredible weekends of regional playoff action.

3. “That” Battalion v. Coras Match
After playing to two 1-1 draws in the Southwest Conference regular season, North County Battalion and Deportivo Coras of Riverside matched up on Saturday night, July the 9th, at Del Norte Stadium, going toe to toe for the second time in a 10-day span. Most everyone, players, coaches, fans, and media alike expected more of the same, a tight, tense, and cagey encounter filled with physicality and defensive prowess.

Instead, it was a goal filled, action packed playoff match for the ages, a 5-3 win for the Battalion, one that will go down as one of the most entertaining affairs in recent San Diego soccer history. Coras took a 2-0 lead inside a half hour before the experienced Nelson Pizarro (one day after celebrating his 31st birthday) scored a stunner just before the break, a bending strike from over 25 yards past Coras goalkeeper and Guillermo Ochoa lookalike Alonso Lara. The game truly turned on its head in the opening minutes of the second half, when Coras forward Bruno Meyer was shown a straight red for a studs over challenge on Sasha Peranteau.

With momentum on their side, the Battalion exhibited some gorgeous build up play to send Tim Roty through for an exceptional equalizer. In the 74th minute, Esteban Reyes looked like he’d won it for the home side, a ferocious drive from distance past Lara for a 3-2 lead. The drama wasn’t over. A blistering counter from Coras in the 80th minute saw Luis Ayala hammer a volley up and over James Stroud to tie the score at 3-3.

In the dying minutes, a handball was called on Coras, creating one of the most poetic situations of the season. On April 24th in Riverside, the Battalion carried a 1-0 lead into the 88th minute, when Justin Picou was called for a handball in the box, allowing Coras’ Shane Shelton to step up to the spot (officially in the 89th minute) and put his penalty home to break Battalion hearts. On this night, it was Shane Shelton called for the handball, in the 88th minute, and who stepped up (officially in the 89th minute) to take the penalty? None other than Justin Picou, who proceeded to hit a panenka straight down the middle for the winner. Nelson Pizarro added the fifth late in added time, assuring man of the match honors and sending Del Norte Stadium into absolute bedlam. “A night like that one,” said Battalion Head Coach Ryan Guy, “that’s why this club exists. That’s what it’s all about.”

2. Albion Pros “Just Finding a Way”
After an undefeated regular season that saw them crowned Southwestern Conference champions, Albion Pros went into their first round playoff match with So Cal SC of San Bernardino with loads of confidence. However, it was So Cal SC who drew Albion 1-1 at Mission Bay back in early May, and who were robbed (at least according to the majority of people who saw the match) in mid June when they lost 3-2 at home to Albion, a game that saw the visitors awarded three penalties, all of which were converted.

The boys from San Bernardino knew that they could hang with the top dogs, and looked at this playoff affair as the perfect chance to pull off the upset. After an evenly played first 45, So Cal came out flying in the second half, and in the 62nd minute, took a 1-0 lead thanks to the aerial prowess of Max Rico, the 6 foot 4 inch midfielder who had already scored against Albion earlier in the season. That header looked like it was going to be enough, So Cal holding the lead for the subsequent minutes, and looking strong. But 20 minutes after the visitors struck, the home team equalized in a fashion that was as bizarre as it was spectacular.

With the So Cal keeper way off his line in an attempt to clear the ball off the byline, outside of his box, the leading goalscorer in the Southwest Conference found the ball at his feet, just in front of the corner flag on the left attacking side. Matt Clare proceeded to take one touch and hit the most stunning curler into the goal, a true “olimpico”, and tie the score, the ball nearly being cleared off the line by two desperate So Cal defenders.

The match went into extra time, with not one but two red cards being shown to Albion players. With their opponents down to nine men, So Cal still couldn’t find a winner. The game went to penalties. In the shootout, the man who has electrified San Diego all season long, “Super” Jean Antoine, took center stage, the goalkeeper saving three of the four So Cal spot kicks. The final save would’ve made the likes of Briana Scurry (Rose Bowl ’99), Jerzey Dudek (Istanbul ’05), and a handful of other top flight goalies of the past blush, Antoine at least three yards off his line when the kick was taken. It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.

Seven days later, Albion hosted OSA FC of Seattle. Despite the travel lag, and some difficulties with their hotel situation, the boys from the Pacific Northwest battled valiantly, the match tied 1-1 all the way to the 86th minute, when Albion had a corner kick. After the first ball was half-cleared high into the air, Albion’s Raymundo Reza stepped into a volley from outside the box, catching it oh so sweetly, cannoning the ball up and over the traffic ahead, into the bottom corner, and into the back of the net, Reza already in full celebration before many in the ground including the OSA players, had realized what had happened. Albion held on and squeaked by, again. They proved all season long that winners always “just find a way”. That was until the West Region Final, when they ran into an orange buzz saw from Northern California.

1. Sonoma with the Double San Diego Knockout
The 2009 NPSL National Champions the Sonoma County Sol knew they had a good squad this year. Led by veteran forward and Paul Bunyon impersonator Taylor Varnadore, along with speedy 22-year-old forward Diego Lopez (who was recently released by Sacramento Republic, and rebounded with Sonoma), the Sol and their head coach Vinnie Cortezzo looked at 2016 as a season of opportunity.

After narrowly winning the Golden Gate Conference, and coming back from 1-0 down to beat the East Bay Stompers in their playoff opener, the Sol hosted the North County Battalion in round two. It was Varnadore with a hammer job in the 10th minute, his 20 yard volley off the underside of the crossbar making the score 1-0. It was an evenly played match without many clear-cut opportunities, until one fell to the feet of Diego Lopez in the 56th minute. The crafty speed demon sent a deft chip over James Stroud to double his side’s lead, and just two minutes later, off a half cleared set piece, rocketed a low volley into the bottom corner from outside the eighteen for his brace, putting the game on ice at 3-0 and ending the Battalion’s inaugural NPSL season.

Seven days later, it was the Sol making the reverse trip, traveling to San Diego to take on Albion Pros in the West Region Final, with a big ol’ trophy and a spot in the NPSL semi-finals at stake. After a scoreless first half, both teams came out of the dressing rooms with a purpose. It was a fierce encounter, and based on the way things had gone all season, and especially in these playoffs, you just got the feeling that Albion would find a way.

Diego Lopez had other ideas, and when presented with his only real goal scoring opportunity of the game after a turnover in the midfield from the home side, Lopez calmly slid one past the onrushing Jean Antoine, giving the Sol a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish, Lopez with the goal, and the double bird flip to soccer in San Diego. Two games in seven days against the two San Diego outfits, three goals for Diego Lopez, and the Sol don’t concede even once en route to knocking both the Battalion and Albion out of the playoffs. It’s onto Southeastern Tennessee for the Sol, as they take on the number one seed in the NPSL, Chattanooga FC, next Saturday, the Santa Rosa boys just two wins away from replicating their 2009 achievement. Clarkstown FC hosts AFC Cleveland in the other national semi-final. Stay tuned to Soccer Nation to find out who takes the National Championship crown here in 2016.

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