CD Aguiluchos USA advanced to the West Region Finals Saturday night by defeating the top-seeded Sonoma County Sol in a dramatic match that was decided on penalty kicks.
CDA now faces the Sacramento Gold, which defeated the San Diego Flash in the other West Regional semi-final played Saturday night.
CD Aguiluchos USA won despite playing on the road before an estimated 600 fans and playing a man short most of the game. They came from behind twice to win, in the process defeating a team that had beaten them three times this season, twice in league play and once during U.S. Open qualification.
The game ended dramatically, more than three hours after it began, when Ross Middlemiss scored his second penalty kick to win the match. The two teams had engaged in a protracted and dramatic battle of penalty kicks, in which both goalkeepers made dramatic saves and even converted penalty kicks themselves.
In the end, CD Aguiluchos USA won the penalty kick round by a 9-8 margin. As soon as Middlemiss converted, he was mobbed by teammates and his teammates and fans stormed the field.
The loss might have been even more heartbreaking for the Sol since Middlemiss had starred several seasons for Sonoma. He even won the NPSL National Player of the Year award in 2013 before moving onto to Oakland to play for CD Aguiluchos USA this season.
“It was pretty sweet and not because there was any bad blood (with Sonoma),” Middlemiss said after he pulled himself from his celebrating teammates. “We believed in ourselves.”
But, the Prodigal Son’s return to Sonoma to press a dagger in the heart of his former team was only one of the subplots to the game.
One of those subplots surfaced in the local newspaper even before the match began when a Sol player talked confidently about his team’s prospects against CDA.
“I think we are in their head,” Sol defender Christopher Rodd was quoted as saying in the Press Democrat. “We have an answer for everything they bring.”
CD Aguiluchos USA, for its part, never showed signs that they were going to roll over to one of the league’s perennial powers. The Sol won the league’s title in 2009 and have been runner-ups twice in its playoffs.
Once the game started, Sonoma’s proud history was ignored by CDA. They played to win, sometimes playing four men up front in an effort to attack the Sol.
But the Sol scored first when one of their veteran players, Tyler Hurst, scored in the 25th minute on a goal that was assisted by defender Taylor Varnadore.
The first half ended with Sonoma leading 1-0. Despite that score, however, CD Aguiluchos USA seemed to control the game for extended periods of play. Much of the game had been played in the game’s midfield.
In other words, if Sonoma was in the “head” of CD Aguiluchos USA, the upstarts did not seem to pay it any attention.
In the second half, Leopoldo Morales scored in the 50th minute to tie the game 1-1.
At that point, the grandstands had been filled with lively chatter. Fans of the Sol stomped their feet on the aluminum grandstands. The CD Aguiluchos USA fans, although smaller in number, had kept pace with loud cheers for their side.
But in game’s 56th minute, CDA defender Derek Dorill was issued a second yellow card for a tackle from behind. His teammates played the rest of the game a man down.
Although their fans became quiet for a little while, CD Aguiluchos USA did not surrender. In fact, no one seemed to tell them they were on the road against a league power with a man down. They fought on and, indeed, they spent so much time in front of the Sonoma goal that it was difficult to remember they were playing short-handed.
The game was tied 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes of regulation time. This sent the game into two 15-minute periods of overtime.
Sonoma’s Brandon Boone scored with 10 minutes left in the first period of overtime.
Had anyone calculated the odds, it seemed likely the region’s top rated team, the team that had already beaten its foe three times this season, would surely win this game before a home crowd. It was late in the game. They had the lead. They were playing with a man advantage.
CD Aguiluchos USA refused to give up. Middlemiss, the former POY now playing for CDA, scored with 10 minutes left in the second overtime period to tie the game.
Despite all the subplots, all the heroics and all the drama, the game would now go to penalty kicks. Sonoma fans roared and stomped their feet when their players scored. CD Aguiluchos USA fans let off hearty cheers when their players did the same.
In the end, naturally, it came down to Middlemiss placing the ball for the fateful kick which decided the game. He decided to drive it down the middle.
Vinnie Cortezzo, head coach of the Sol, said the three weeks of inaction since the end of the season had hurt his team.
Both Cortezzo and Middlemiss agree that some teams, forced to play a man down, simply become more determined and play better.