California United Strikers Defeat LA Force in PKs
California United Strikers Defeat LA Force to win the NISA West Coast Championship Match in rock solid soccer match in front of 2,826 soccer fans. It is a championship final that will be remembered — an exciting game that ended 2-2 after regulation time, went into overtime and then was decided in PKs.
Steven Barrera knew the situation looked grim for California United Strikers FC late in the National Independent Soccer Association‘s West Coast championship game.
United came out strong and scored first, going into halftime with 1-0 score. Then the tide turned and LA Force equalized and then scored again, but United earned the right of hoisting the trophy.
Cal United was a goal down and the clock rapidly nearing 90 minutes against an L.A. Force side that had clearly had the better of play in the second half.
The 26-year-old goalkeeper never doubted that the Strikers wouldn’t overcome, and when the decisive moment arrived, it was he who made the difference.
California United Strikers rallied for a late goal to forge a 2-2 draw and force overtime, battled through 30 scoreless minutes, and then prevailed on penalty kicks Sunday night at Great Park’s Championship Stadium, with Barrera’s stop on the first shot he faced in the tiebreaker the key moment.
“We never in our mind thought that we were going to lose,” Barrera said during the celebration that followed. “Well, at least me. I was expecting to get one or two more goals and finish it out in regulation. We got the goal, took the game to overtime, and we did what we had to do in overtime — kept it at zeroes — and then went to penalty kicks and won it.”
“It feels amazing. Couldn’t ask for anything more, couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to win it with.”Steven Barrera, California United Strikers Goalkeeper
Gonzalo Salguero netted the decisive spot kick to give Cal United a 5-3 triumph in the tiebreaker and provide a glorious climax to the NISA’s inaugural “showcase” and a wild final largely defined by momentum swings played in front of a spirited crowd of 2,826.
“What can I say? It feels amazing,” Salguero said when it was over. “It’s a long time coming. We’ve been working really hard, and it’s like a family over here.
“This has been the goal from the beginning, and we got it. Feels good.”Gonzalo Salguero, California United Strikers
Michael Bryant provided the late equalizer, finishing a Salguero through ball in the 86th minute after the Force had wrested the advantage from Cal United with a forceful 30 minutes to start the second half.
Gustavo Villalobos‘ fifth goal of the season, from a beautiful diagonal ball by Kevin Jeon, gave Cal United a 20th-minute lead, but L.A.— the top Western team during the regular season— surged ahead on goals by Enrique Cardenas Jr. in the 61st and Marvin Merlano in the 72nd minutes. Bryant’s finish prolonged the action an extra half-hour, and then Barrera played hero.
Bryant’s finish prolonged the action an extra half-hour, and then Barrera played the hero.
Juan Pablo Ocegueda, who had come on with about 10 minutes to go in overtime after Bryant went down with an ankle injury, converted the first kick in the shootout to give Cal United the advantage. And then Barrera leapt to stop Naeem Charles‘ shot toward the right post.
“I was pretty confident, I’m not going to lie,” Barrera said. “I didn’t second-guess myself. If was going to go a certain way, I was going to make sure to go that way and not change it up. I wasn’t going to psych myself out.”
“I came up with the save in the PKs, and then my team didn’t miss. I think that’s the most important stat, that they didn’t miss.”Steven Barrera, California United Strikers Goalkeeper
Nobody missed after Barrera’s big save. Omar Nuño, Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, and Villalobos converted for Cal United, and the Force stayed alive as Boniface Muchiri, Ricardo Ruiz and Mark Tanko answered each goal with another. That left Salguero with the chance to win it, and he wasn’t going to miss.
“Can’t lie, definitely nervous,” he said. “But I feel confident with my PK, rarely miss, and I wanted the last one. I wanted it.”
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The championship sends Cal United — along with Miami FC, a 3-0 winner over Stumptown Athletic from Matthews, N.J., in Saturday’s East Coast final — to playoffs at the conclusion of next year’s NISA spring season, the third-division professional league’s first full campaign.
“Unfortunately, there has to be a winner and a loser,” L.A. head coach Thales Peterson said. “Today, they did a better job than us in PKs and got the win.”
Cal United was in charge until the second half, but a tactical shift and some fresh legs gave the visitors command after the break.
The Force put the Strikers’ defense on its heels and might have snagged the trophy had Bryant not nodded away a Ruiz shot from the right that was headed toward the upper-left corner four minutes after Cardenas had pulled L.A. even.
“I give the Force a lot of credit,” Cal United head coach Don Ebert said. “They completely changed up [at halftime], went with four up top and started playing really direct, and they changed us up. They’re a good, solid team. They don’t make mistakes. I was pleased the way we answered when we were down, 2-1, because we were a little lost.”
Forward Christian Thierjung, who after the match was presented the Golden Ball as the West Coast MVP, an honor secured through a league-best six goals, described the second half as “a lot of grinding, a lot of defending.”
“Unfortunately, they took the lead, and we had to fight our way back,” said Thierjung. “But that’s what winning teams do. That’s the winning mentality. Great effort by both teams, but we came out and proved who is best in the West.”
Cal United had an 8-1 shot advantage in the first half, but aside from Villalobos’ goal — slotted toward the right post from just inside the box after Jeon’s ball split Tanko and fellow defender Joshua Culwell — chances were at a premium. The Force conceded possession but not space.
“They hunkered down and wanted to keep it tight and give us the ball,” Ebert said. “I told the guys if we get two goals, we’ll get four, but we’ve got to get the second one, and we didn’t.”
Cal United nearly netted a second goal 11 minutes into the second half, when Villalobos picked up a clearance, roamed to the left and into the box, then fired through the goalmouth and off the right post. The Force, stronger after bringing on Cardenas and left back Gregory Salazar at the break, began surging forward after that, and the tying goal, something of a fluke, quickly arrived.
Cardenas took a backheel from Ruiz in the Cal United box and slid a ball from a tight angle on the right that slipped past Barrera at the near post and Merlano in the middle and then caromed off the right post. The Force collected the rebound and worked the ball back to the right, where Ruiz again found Cardenas along the byline.
Cardenas again fired from an abrupt angle. Barrera tracked it and stepped toward the ball, but it ricocheted off Salguero and into the net.
“I was reading it to go to the middle,” Barrera said, “and after it deflects, I’m already going the other way.” Salguero called it “just unfortunate … something you’ve got to live with.”
The Force’s second goal was clinical. Goalkeeper Miguel Marin booted the ball into Cal United territory, it took a big bounce, and Cardenas won an aerial battle to nod it farther along. Merlano collected it between defenders, took it to the box, then slotted past Barrera to the right side of the goal.
Cal United’s push forward, with Bryant moving from the backline, led to chances. Sanchez-Rincon headed a Salguero free kick just past the left post in the 80th minute, Marin sprawled to gather a Bryant header toward the right post from a Salguero corner kick two minutes later, and Marin made an outstanding stop a minute after that, parrying the shot after Andy Contreras took a clearance off his chest and volleyed toward the upper-left corner from about 24 yards.
Bryant struck soon after, cutting inside a bit from the left to shoot after Salguero gathered a clearance by Giovanny Vazquez — exceptional in the middle of the Force backline — at midfield and sent the ball ahead through a gap.
There were two late chances to win in regulation, but Marin handled Nuño’s deft redirection of a Contreras blast into the box in the 90th minute, and came off his line to grab a Contreras shot four minutes into stoppage.
Not much of interest occurred during overtime — aside from Bryant’s injury, after a Force player clipped him in the L.A. box — but there were plenty of fireworks after that, with Barrera’s providing the biggest boom.
“Stevie has been great all year,” Ebert said. “Ever since he got his shot in the third game, he hasn’t looked back. I’m really happy for him because he came from nowhere and just kept showing up every day. I said, ‘Steve, you’re No. 3, it’s a long climb,’ and here he is now winning it for us.
NISA West Coast Championship Match Scoring Summary
Cal United FC 2, L.A. Force 2, OT
(Cal United wins championship on penalties, 5-3)
CU — Gustavo Villalobos (Kevin Jeon) 21
LA — Enrique Cardenas Jr. (Ricardo Ruiz) 61
LA — Marvin Merlano (Enrique Cardenas Jr.) 72
CU — Michael Bryant (Gonzalo Salguero) 86
Cal United FC: Steven Barrera; Chris Klute, Michael Bryant (Juan Pablo Ocegueda, 111), Xavier Fuerte, Gonzalo Salguero; Abraham Villon Jr. (Andy Contreras, 76), Duncan Capriotti (Beto Navarro, 91), Evan Waldrep (Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, 73); Gustavo Villalobos, Christian Thierjung, Kevin Jeon (Omar Nuño, 66).
L.A. Force: Miguel Marin; Mark Tanko, Joshua Culwell, Giovanny Vazquez, Daniel Amo (Gregory Salazar, 46); Ever De La Torre (Enrique Cardenas Jr., 46), Leonardo Silva dos Anjos (Naeem Charles, 57), Jesus Gonzalez (Kainoa Bailey, 120); Alvaro Madrigal-Zavala (Cristhian Hernandez, 87), Marvin Merlano (Boniface Muchiri, 77), Ricardo Ruiz.
Penalties: Cal United FC — Ocegueda goal, Nuño goal, Sanchez-Rincon goal, Villalobos goal, Salgueiro goal. L.A. Force — Charles saved, Muchiri goal, Ruiz goal, Tanko goal.
Yellow cards: Vazquez 18, Capriotti 58, Tanko 81, L.A. head coach Thales Peterson 86, L.A. assistant coach Salvador Moran 86, Cardenas 102, Sanchez-Rincon 106.
Referee: William Randy Hoffman. Att.: 2,846.