Two regular season games. Two 1-1 draws. One intriguing playoff matchup. There must be a winner.
In their two head to head encounters this season, San Diego’s North County Battalion and Riverside’s Deportivo Coras played the tune of an almost poetic song. The two games had elements of mirror image, and even some redemption based soccer poetry.
On April 24th in Riverside, the visiting Battalion carried a 1-0 lead all the way to the 89th minute, thanks to an own goal from Coras defender Fernando Cabello early in the second half. The tall center-back was perhaps the best player on the pitch that night, but one moment of misfortune looked to be enough to hand three points to the boys from SD. However, a controversial late penalty (a handball against Justin Picou) saw Coras equalize from the spot through forward Shane Shelton.
Last Wednesday night, June the 29th, in the final regular season match for both sides (with home field advantage in this first round playoff affair on the line, Coras needing a win to send the knockout match to Riverside) it was none other than Fernando Cabello, early in the second half, who slammed home from close range (from a spot on the field eerily similar to the one from which he pierced his own net in April) to give Coras a 1-0 lead.
That lead carried all the way to the 78th minute, when Eli Galbraith-Knapp was taken down inches inside the eighteen yard box by Coras goalkeeper Alonso Lara. Who stepped up to take the penalty for the Battalion? Knowing the outrageous yet symmetrical construct of this particular match-up, did you have any doubt that it would be Justin Picou? Straight down the middle went Picou, Lara diving to his left and watching the ball fly in to tie the score at one. An acrobatic back-flip and a few kisses to the crowd followed for Picou, whose goal was the difference between this weekend’s playoff game being played in San Diego instead of Riverside.
The two matches between these sides have been tight, tense, physical, and cagey affairs. Will it be more of the same on Saturday night, as the Battalion and Coras meet for the third time, and the second time in just ten days? Or will the Battalion, the highest scoring team in the Southwest Conference, hit a boil at the perfect time, and break down the stingy Coras defense?
Here are three things to watch for on Saturday night.
1. Creating chaos: Fernando Cabello v. NC Battalion
You can’t miss the Coras center-back. He stands 6’3” and wears the number 42 on the back of his shirt. He has arguably been the best player on the pitch for either side in both matches against the Battalion this season. He’s even scored a goal for each side, a stroke of misfortune in April, and a product of determination in late June. The game seems to run through him.
Cabello is an enforcer, yet he plays the game with a graceful, calming vibe that is integral to his team’s tight organization. He’s smooth on the ball, and in front of goal (playing as a defender, he’s scored six times this season). His lateral footwork in the defensive third is a sight to behold. He never seems off-balance, and he never seems to panic. This must change if the Battalion are to win on Saturday night. Look for young Asher Booth to be a tasked with the role of permanent pest for the home side, using his engine to his advantage. Booth must do everything he can to pressure Cabello, going at him with the ball, and putting ample pressure on the Coras defender when he is attempting to distribute from the back.
2. Let them fly! Eric Lopez & Esteban Reyes v. Coras
The two leading scorers for NC Battalion must show up with their A-game on Saturday night. Where they will be positioned is still to be determined. The two have played together up top this season, looking solid as out-and-out strikers, but they have also thrived as wingers in a four man midfield set-up. Even when playing as forwards, both Lopez and Reyes have the tendency to drift out wide and find space, allowing them to receive the ball and truly go at defenders with pace and purpose.
What Lopez and Reyes could do for the Battalion actually ties back to Fernando Cabello. The home side must be diverse in their attack, and if they can mix it up in terms of the ways that Lopez and Reyes (as well as Asher Booth, Sergio Ortiz, Nelson Pizarro, and a few others) go at the Coras backline, it will create a bit of uncertainty. Cabello will not necessarily be able to camp out in the defensive center the way he did in both matches this season. If the Battalion become predictable, it could be a long, frustrating night for the home team. If they can keep Cabello and his defensive mates off-balance, there could be some serious openings.
3. The Goalkeepers Union: Stroud v. Lara
James Stroud has played against Coras twice this season. He’s made a combined 17 saves, and took the man of the match award in both games.
Alonso Lara has played against the Battalion twice this season. He’s made a handful of outstanding stops, but has impressed most with his ability to play with his feet. With the hair of Guillermo Ochoa, Lara plays the keeper position like Jorge Campos, never afraid to take that extra touch with his boots.
Stroud is a strong believer in the Goalkeeper’s Union. “We all deal with the same adversity, no matter what team we’re on, or what level we play at,” the Battalion netminder says.
Stroud is 6’3”. Lara is 5’11”. They might as well both be ten feet tall, for that is the level of dependence in play from their respective teammates and coaches. They will surely both be called upon on Saturday night, in this playoff battle between two evenly matched teams. The goalkeeper match-up may be a microcosm of the game as a whole. It may come down to one slip up, one mistake that ends a team’s season and prolongs another. It’s a cruel game this, and there’s no position in sports that wears the brunt of misfortune the way goalkeepers do in the soccer world. But we’re talking about two determined competitors here in Stroud and Lara, two men who know what being a keeper is all about. They know the risk. They know what’s at stake.
NC Battalion v. Deportivo Coras
1st Rd. NPSL Playoff
Saturday 7/9/16, 7 PM
Del Norte Stadium, San Diego