Ross Middlemiss starred for the Sonoma County Sol for six seasons, helping them win a National Premier Soccer League championship one year and reach the title game in another while picking up the league’s MVP honor.
Now he’s hoping to knock off the West Region power after leading CD Aguiluchos USA, making their initial playoff appearance in the Oakland, Calif.-based club’s third season, into the regional semifinals.
Aguiluchos (8-4-1), the No. 6 seed in the six-team West bracket, set up a showdown next weekend with the top-seeded Sol (10-2-0) by romping to a 4-0 road victory Sunday night over No. 3 Deportivo Coras USA U-23 in a Western quarterfinal at La Sierra University in Southern California’s Inland Empire.
Mexican veteran Leopoldo Morales scored midway through the first half, and Englishman Simon Rawnsley doubled the advantage about halfway through the second before setting up late goals by substitutes Devin Collins and Juan Mondragon as the Northern Californians dictated terms nearly from start to finish.
“This late in the season, everyone’s pretty close, and this league, especially: There’s so much parity,” said Middlemiss, who teamed up front with Rawnsley as Aguiluchos created more than a dozen decent scoring opportunities. “If you look from start to finish, especially in the north in our division, it comes down to those small moments, of winning those 50-50 balls, of winning a tackle in the right direction so a guy can play a ball in. Just those fine details.
“We knew a team like [Coras] was going to be technical, so we really had to take the front foot and be aggressive, and I think we did that.”
Aguiluchos, with players generally older and more experienced than their foe’s, used a compact backline fronted by holding midfielder Miguel Santiago to deny Coras attacking space, then burst forward on counterattacks, many fueled by Morales in the middle. They won the vast majority of midfield battles to put their hosts’ defenders on their heels much of the evening.
“We wanted a lot of concentration, we wanted to keep our shape, we were focusing on tucking in when we lost the ball and then getting wide and trying to play the ball around them when we won it back, and just trying to play quickly and catch them on the counterattack …,” said Rawnsley, whose goal was his 13th in 13 games this year. “We wanted to pressure their backline and try to force mistakes at the back and capitalize on that.”
Riverside-based Coras (8-3-2), a first-year NPSL club that finished just three points behind longtime league powerhouse San Diego Flash in the Southwest Conference, struggled without midfield leader and top scorer Mingwu Wee, who took a knock in a friendly Friday night against the U-20 team from Mexico City giant Club America.
That game had a huge impact on Coras, which was a step slow most of the night and, with Wee sidelined, rarely found any connections in the attacking half and were forced to rely on direct play.
“It was going to be difficult to bounce back with one day’s rest after playing an extremely tough game two days ago, so [the struggles were] expected,” Coras head coach David Treviño said. “We obviously didn’t think it was going to be that much of a dropoff, but, unfortunately, here we are.
“We weren’t really thinking as clearly as we normally do, given the heavy legs. Guys are still complaining about being sore as the game’s about to start, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to shake it off and move on.”
Treviño said he didn’t regret playing the game Friday, nor how he utilized his players in that game.
“A game of that caliber is great for our company,” he said. “We’re a young franchise, and I think games like those can really put us on the map and really help us create a name for ourselves. Obviously, we would have liked to maybe schedule it a little bit better, but the game was scheduled prior to when the playoff [schedule] came out.
“At the end of the day, that was a good game for us to play. We learned a lot about ourselves, about the higher levels, and I think it was pretty beneficial. We should have bounced back a little better, but, again, it’s a little bit difficult at times.”
Coras found some momentum late in the first half and created their best three opportunities in a seven-minute span. Marco Moreno forced a save by goalkeeper Kevin Gonzalez at the right post and Shane Shelton’s goalmouth rebound was blocked in the 39th minute, Shelton put an open header over the crossbar in the 43rd, and Gonzalez did well to knock aside a sharp Edgar Llamas shot in the 45th.
Aguiluchos consistently were a threat once Morales tallied in the 24th minute — he pounced on a poor clearance just outside the Coras box, then blistered the ball into the net — and might have taken a two- or three-goal lead by the break had Coras goalkeeper Alonso Lara, a veteran of the Mexican second division, not snagged Adan Martinez’s blast to the lower-left corner in the 32nd minute, or if Llamas hadn’t slid the ball away from Rawnsley in the 34th.
They started pouring it on about 15 minutes into the second half. Morales, who has played in UANL Tigres’ system and with pro clubs Fort Lauderdale Strikers and L.A. Blues, fired just past the right post in the 58th minute, and Lara came off his line to take the ball off Rawnsley’s foot a minute later.
Rawnsley hit the post two minutes later, after a corner kick bounced through the goalmouth. His back was to the net, but he flicked the ball behind him, and it hit the right post, deflected off Roman Santiago on the goal line and was cleared.
Rawnsley got his goal on a 65th-minute breakaway, beating Lara at the top of the box after a feed from Miguel Santiago, then slotting the ball into the empty net. That was, for all intents, the game.
Coras was forced to push forward after that, and Aguiluchos took advantage, with Rawnsley setting up Collins in the 87th minute and Mondragon in the 88th.
And so it’s on to Santa Rosa High School, where on Saturday night they’ll meet the Sol. It’ll be the fourth time they’ve faced off this season, and the Sol have won all three: a last-minute, 2-1 triumph in a U.S. Open Cup qualifier and 4-3 and 3-1 victories in Golden Gates Conference play.
“Next week’s going to be a good test,” said Middlemiss, who joined Aguiluchos this year after moving the 50 miles south from Sonoma County for his wife’s job in the East Bay, across the water from San Francisco. “For me, it’s nice. My wife and I love going back to Sonoma. They’re a good team, and I think they’re getting better as the season goes on. It’ll be tough. They’re definitely the team to beat in the region, there’s no doubt about that, but we’ve shown in each of the games, there have been spells where we’ve taken it and put them under pressure, so it’s possible.
“It’s not going to be easy. They’re a great team, they’re well-organized, they’re well-coached, they’ve got some great players, but it all comes down to a 90-minute game, and we definitely believe we can do it. I’m looking forward to it.”