California United Strikers FC Prove Too Much For San Diego 1904 FC
Coached by Don Ebert, the California United Strikers defeated 1904 FC coached by Alexandre Gontran in the last home game of the short 2019 NISA season. The rivalry between these two Southern California teams thrives but United triumphed again, this time with more confidence.
There was only so much California United Strikers FC could get from Sunday’s showdown with San Diego 1904 FC, and points weren’t among the spoils.
The Strikers pulled away late to a 4-1 triumph, their third win in four games at Great Park’s Championship Stadium, and if it didn’t elevate them in the National Independent Soccer Association‘s standings, they moved a step closer to the West Coast title game by denying their visitors.
Omar Nuño provided an early lead, Andy Contreras doubled the advantage near the start of the second half, and California United Strikers(2-1-2) absorbed intense 1904 pressure most of the second half and scored on two late counterattacks to keep a one-point lead over LA Force (2-1-1) and two-point edge on San Diego (2-3-0) as a tight West Coast race nears its finish.
The late goals came from Michael Bryant and Christian Thierjung, the latter tallying for the fourth successive game, his fifth goal of the season.
Gustavo Villalobos, Cal United’s chief playmaker, and Evan Waldrep assisted two goals apiece.
The victory, owing to a quirk in the NISA Showcase schedule, didn’t count for Cal United, but 1904 was saddled with the defeat.
It’s debris from the NISA’s quick start and stadium-availability issues, which left the Strikers with seven games and everyone else with six.
San Diego now must win its win its finale Nov. 2 at home against LA Force (2-1-1) to advance to the Nov. 16 NISA West Coast Championship.
Cal United can clinch a spot in that game with a victory Saturday against LA Force at Rio Hondo College.
A win or draw would give it the top spot in the West, and ostensibly a home game for the final, but defeat would would drop the club to second place, and a spot in the title game would require LA to win or tie in San Diego.
The odd context spurred Cal United’s head coach Don Ebert to alter his lineup, giving time to players who have seen spot duty or none at all while giving three regulars — center back Xavier Fuerte, central midfielder Abraham Villon Jr. and winger Kevin Jeon — the day off.
“We train so hard, guys got to get their chances, and they have to get their chances in a game,” Ebert said when it was over. “I wanted to see some guys in different positions.”
“It wasn’t pretty. San Diego played really good. They were all over us, but we scored and got a win.”Don Ebert, Cal United’s head coach
Ebert gave Contreras and center back Beto Navarro their first starts of the season and Nuño and Waldrup their first starts since a Sept. 14 loss at 1904.
James McGhee got his first playing time since the Aug. 31 defeat at Oakland, the league opener, and fellow second-half substitute Cashion London saw his first action of the year.
Navarro didn’t put a foot wrong and made several plays to defuse dangerous 1904 attacks. Waldrep was pivotal in midfield, and his work, especially, keyed the opening goal.
All fared well, and Navarro and Waldrep, in particular, were standouts.
Ebert was pleased with both.
“I threw Evan in too deep, too quick in the first two games, and that’s on me,” he said. “Once I pulled him out of the starting lineup and started to bring him off the bench, he got back his rhythm. He’s a great player. I just threw him in too deep too soon, but he’s going to be a big part of what we do going forward.”
“Beto is a 30-year-old veteran: been there, done it, seen it all. I told him, ‘Just give us calmness, Beto, and, listen, the legs may not be there like they were at 30 — they never are — but the mind is strong,” said Ebert.
“His positioning, his composure, he didn’t get beat once in a footrace, and 1904 has three rabbits on the forward line. Being athletic is great, but you’ve got to have some brains, too.”
San Diego, desperate for points, were on the front foot from the start, and totaled 20 shots to the Strikers’ 15.
It had its first good chance in the fourth minute, but that didn’t play out as hoped — right back Dallin Cutler, a force going forward for 1904, failed to connect with an open Nelson Flores in front of the net, and goalkeeper Steven Barrera parried Eder Arreola’s blast to the left post from the debris — and Cal United put away its third opportunity to go ahead.
Last month, Barrera was honored as NISA Player of the Week.
Nuño netted his second goal of the season in the 18th minute, with Waldrep doing most of the work with a diagonal run from the left.
Waldrep played a little give-and-go with Contreras at the top of the box, with Contreras back-heeling the ball onto his run, then found an open Omar at the left post.
Omar whiffed on the shot, but the ball fell underneath him. He had to regroup, get the ball onto his foot, then cut a step to the right to slice the ball past a retreating Cutler and goalkeeper Marcus Norris and inside the right post.
“Once you get a shot that’s easy, you overthink it, and once it was on my foot, it just got under my foot, ” said Nuño.
“I was able to get the ball back, and I had to do a little bit of a turn, but that’s what I know how to do — I know how to turn — and, thankfully, I put it in the back of the net,” said Nuño.
San Diego has two good chances as the first half wound down, but Barrera handled Lorenzo Ramirez Jr.’s half-volley from 16 yards following a corner kick in the 35th minute and Cutler’s long-range attempt from the right that sailed away from the target.
Ebert made three changes at halftime to get a better counterattacking group on the field — speedy striker Thierjung, in particular — and Cal United made it 2-0 in the 52nd.
Contreras linked on the break with Thierjung, who connected on the left flank with Gonzalo Salguero.
Salguero’s cross to the near post was misplayed by defender Ozzie Ramos, and Villalobos swooped in to collect the ball, turned and fed it across the goalmouth for Contreras to finish, his second goal of the year.
San Diego 1904 FC’s coach Anatoly Rubtsov went to the bench right afterward and again, with three more changes, not quite 10 minutes later, and the game was 1904’s most of the rest of the way.
Barrera made a brilliant save in the 69th, pawing away a fierce Billy Garton rebound at the left post after center back Adan Coronado blocked a Brandon Zambrano shot.
“It kind of pinged around … and they had Barton around the 6-yard box,” Barrera said. “He had an open shot, smacked it first time and put it on frame. I just reacted as best as I could.”
Zambrano didn’t miss a minute later as 1904 halved its deficit. Abdoulaye Cissoko headed Flores’ corner kick off the crossbar, and Cal United midfielder Miguel Sanchez-Rincon nodded the ball toward the left flank. Zambrano was there and finished easily toward the right post.
San Diego continued to peck away at Cal United’s compact defense without success, and Michael Bryant finished from Waldrep’s through ball in the 83rd minute to boost the lead to 3-1.
Thierjung tallied in the 90th, an easy finish after Villalobos beat a defender with a run along the right byline.
“The second half was a little bit different from the first half,” Thierjung said. “We had a couple of early chances, and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to put those away, and then they were able to counter on the other end, and they put it in, and they made it kind of close at the end. Eventually, just needed to find that final through ball.
We had a great team effort, collectively.Christian Thierjung
“Steven had some great saves to keep us with that lead, and I knew we were going to get some more goals. Our team is always good at creating opportunities, it’s just about putting them away and taking care of business.”
Cal United “got lucky,” Ebert said. “Stevie made that one-handed save on Garton, they missed two or three sitters, and then we got them,” he said.
He’s expecting a tough game next week against LA Force.
“I think it’s going to be really physical,” he said. “I told the guys we need to be ready for an ugly game. I think it’s going to be a brutal game. That’s what I’m prepared for. I’m not sure they’re going to let us play our game.”