California United Strikers Tie LA Force 2-2, Punch Ticket to NISA West Coast Championship
#HomeOfTheDream — that is the hashtag for California United Strikers and this short, inaugural 2019 NISA season has been exactly that. Owned by Bronwyn Capriotti who fought the odds to gain pro status for United, the new pro team has consistently proved itself on the pitch.
California United Strikersgot the result it needed, if not the result it most wanted, by playing even Saturday night with theL.A. Force, enough to claim a berth in the National Independent Soccer Association‘s first West Coast Championship game.
Christian Thierjung scored his league-best sixth goal and Gustavo Villalobos netted his fourth as Cal United clinched a top-two spot in the West with a 2-2 draw at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
“We came here to make the final. That was the only goal,” California United’s head coach Don Ebert said as the Strikers celebrated with the visiting fans. “How it happened didn’t matter — win, draw — so I’m happy for the guys.”
“Our players get to play the first time in the championship game for the West. That’s a good accomplishment.”Don Ebert, Head Coach California United Strikers
Cal United (2-1-3), which went unbeaten in its last five regular-season games, held onto a one-point advantage over the Force (2-1-2), which would have clinched the No. 1 spot in the West and a title-game berth with a victory and can do so next weekend with a win or draw against San Diego 1904 FC (2-3-0) in the NISA Showcase regular-season finale.
Cal United would play 1904 FC for the fourth time this season if the home side beats the Force on Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium.
“I’m looking forward to the NISA final, whoever [our opponent] might be, L.A. Force or San Diego again,” Thierjung said. “We’re very familiar with both, so we’re just going to go out there and win this thing.”
The Strikers would have clinched the top spot in the West with a victory over the Force and twice held a lead — on Thierjung’s penalty kick in the 20th minute and Villalobos’ superb individual goal in the 64th — in a most physical encounter that played out much as expected.
“I thought it was the game we talked about,” Ebert said. “We talked all week about how it was going to be hard, it was going to be out of control. I thought that they would come hard and not play soccer with us. I thought we played with a lot of composure.
“I told the guys at halftime it was the best first 45 minutes I saw us play [this season] even though it was 1-1.”
Cal United nearly went ahead in the 11th minute, when Michael Bryant struck the top of the crossbar with a header from a Gonzalo Salguero corner kick, but the opening goal soon followed.
Thierjung won the penalty in the 19th minute, running past the backline for a Chris Klute through ball. Force goalkeeper Miguel Marin raced off his line and slid into Thierjung, who then fired his PK to the lower-left corner, extending his scoring streak to five games.
“It’s a great accomplishment. It’s a great [ital]team[end ital] accomplishment,” he said. “It just shows how well our team has been playing throughout this season. My teammates made it easy for me. I just had to make the right runs, and I knew they would find me.
“It’s all about putting away your chances, and I’m a confident goalscorer, so you’ve just got to keep pushing and believe you’re going to score.”
Marin prevented Cal United from adding to its lead, making a fine stop on Salguero after a zig-zag run from the left flank in the 37th minute and snagging Villalobos’ sharp blast from the right two minutes later.
The Force had three good chances before equalizing. Winger Ricardo Ruiz just missed striker Marvin Merlano at the left post after cutting in across the top of the box from the right wing just five minutes in, Cal United goalkeeper Steven Barrera went to the ground to stop Merlano on the break in the 23rd minute, and center back Xavier Fuerte halted Merlano in the box after the Colombian won a duel with Adan Coronado on the right flank in the 44th.
L.A. pulled even on virtually the last touch of the first half. Marin boomed a free kick into the Strikers box from about 16 yards inside Force territory. Defender Giovanny Vazquez, about 15 yards from the net and a tad to the right, outleapt Salguero to nod the ball across the box, and fellow center back Joshua Culwell, free between Klute and midfielder Duncan Capriotti, buried it from about 8 yards.
Cal United threatened three times early in the second half, but Fuerte’s header sailed wide from a Villalobos cross in the 48th minute, Bryant fired just wide from 25 yards in the 54th, and Marin deftly parried a Thierjung shot headed toward the right post in the 56th.
Villalobos finally got the go-ahead goal in the 64th, stripping the ball from Force Daniel Amo near midfield, then sprinting toward the center of the box. He cut it to his left foot as he reached the 18 and blasted it past Marin.
“I actually took a bad touch [on my run toward the box], thinking [the defender] was going to get it,” Villalobos said. “We kind of stopped a little bit, I saw that he didn’t come, continued, just touched to my left, and just shot.”
The lead didn’t last long. L.A. Force head coach Thales Peterson brought on Boniface Muchiri in the 70th minute, and the Kenyan national-teamer added life to L.A.’s game. He would be a constant nuisance, and he had an immediate impact, helping to win a corner kick and then delivering the cross from it that led to the equalizer in the 74th. Peterson is also the Academy Director of FC Golden State.
Muchiri went near-post with the corner, Emanuel Guzman‘s glancing header sent it toward the goalmouth, and Barrera came off his line to punch the ball but didn’t make the kind of contact he desired. Silva dos Anjos, about 16 yards out, forcefully headed it off one bounce back toward the goal, looping it over the scrum and under the crossbar.
The final 20 minutes offered little opportunity for a winner, and when one did come — for the Force after Muchiri and Ruiz dispossessed Klute and send Merlano on a breakaway down the right channel — it amounted to nothing. Merlano, Klute on his heels, fired far beyond the net.
The game closed on a sour note, with Coronado forced off with what appeared to be a left knee injury three minutes into stoppage.
The date for the West Coast title game has not been finalized and the site is expected to be determined this week, based upon venue availability.
NISA officials could award the game to Cal United, to be staged at Great Park’s Championship Stadium in Irvine, or select another venue that could, if SDCCU or Rio Hondo, be a neutral site, depending on Saturday’s outcome.
The West Coast champion, along with the winner of the Nov. 9 East Coast title game pitting host Miami FC against Stumptown Athletic from Matthews, N.C., will advance to the playoffs that follow the NISA’s spring season in 2020.
L.A. Force 2, Cal United FC 2
CU — Christian Thierjung pen. 20
LA — Joshua Culwell (Giovanny Vasquez) 48+
CU — Gustavo Villalobos 64
LA — Leonardo Silva dos Anjos 74
L.A. Force: Miguel Marin; Mark Tanko, Joshua Culwell, Giovanny Vazquez (James Alewine, 67), Daniel Amo; Emanuel Guzman (Frantz Dalusma, 78), Leonardo Silva dos Anjos, Ever De La Torre (Enrique Cardenas Jr., 58); Alvaro Madrigal-Zavala (Boniface Muchiri, 70), Marvin Merlano, Ricardo Ruiz.
Cal United FC: Steven Barrera; Chris Klute, Xavier Fuerte, Adan Coronado (Beto Navarro, 93+), Gonzalo Salguero; Abraham Villon Jr., Duncan Capriotti, Michael Bryant (Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, 73); Gustavo Villalobos, Christian Thierjung (Omar Nuño, 64), Kevin Jeon (Evan Waldrep, 46).
Yellow cards: Silva dos Anjos 15, Culwell 22, Bryant 34, Thierjung 48+. Klute 84.
Referee: Brandon Stevis. Att.: N/A
READ: CHANGING THE GAME – THE WOMAN WHO OWNS CALIFORNIA UNITED STRIKERS