It might be the best rivalry in the National Premier Soccer League, and it’s going to determine the first slot in the championship final four — just like it did last year.
The Sacramento Gold (10-3-1) and Sonoma County Sol (9-2-3), the reigning amateur powerhouses in Northern California, face off Saturday night in the West Region title game at River City High School in West Sacramento, and here’s something both sides agree upon: The survivor could end up with the trophy when it’s all over.
The teams have already met four times this season — in a U.S. Open Cup qualifier back in February and in Golden Gate Conference showdowns in March, April and May — and the Sol have won three of them, all one-goal decisions. The other showdown, in a league opener, saw three lead changes and a late decisive strike in a 3-3 draw.
“I believe we have the strongest conference in the country,” said Ruben Mora Jr., the Gold’s head coach. “We’ve had a national finalist four of the last six years and two champions in that time. If you compare our wins and losses to other conferences, it doesn’t look as strong, but that’s only because it’s so tight in our conference. When we go into the playoffs and play against other conferences, we tend to dominate.”
He’s not exaggerating, at least not much. The Sol won the 2009 NPSL championship, has reached the final four on four occasions and been runner-up twice, including last year. The Gold won the 2010 NPSL title in their inaugural season and nearly made it to championship weekend last year.
Sonoma County ended that dream, scoring twice in overtime for a 3-1 victory in the West title game.
“We have a very strong rivalry,” said Mora, whose team captured the Golden Gate regular season title by one point over the Sol. “We always have gone and battled each other in back-and-forth games. The players kind of know each other, both teams respect each other, and it’s always a tight game, intense.
“We have a good rivalry, not a bad one.”
Sonoma County coach Vinnie Cortezo calls the rivalry “heated.”
“There are no secrets,” he said. “We know each other, and so there’s no real secrets. [The games are] tough, we expect it to be tough, they’re always good at home, and when you play somebody five times in a year,it can be pretty chippy and develop some serious rivalry.
“I think it’s healthy. Both teams have good respect for each other. I know both coaching staffs have good respect for each other, but both teams obviously want to get out of the this round, and for us, we want to get back into the final four and back into the final and take another step from where we were last year.”
The Sol last year romped unbeaten to the title game, in which they were beaten, 2-0, by RVA FC, from Richmond, Va. This year’s has been a more challenging campaign, with injuries wreaking havoc along their backline and taking away key pieces in midfield, and it led to losses to the San Francisco Stompers and Real San Jose, both competitive sides but not to the Sol’s and Gold’s level.
Sonoma County hasn’t lost a league game since May 10 and is unbeaten in all competitions since falling May 24 to Chicago’s RWB Adria in the U.S. Adult Soccer championship match.
“We’ve definitely gotten a little healthier, and along with getting a little healthier, some guys [filling in] have gained experience and grown,” Cortezo said. “This is our third game in a row with the same back four, and I don’t think we could say that about any game leading up to this period — we were changing our back four every week because of injuries or other reasons, always seemed to be missing somebody.
“I think that’s a big part of what’s going right. We’re more consistent with our lineup.”
The Sol’s big gun is Ross Middlemiss, the NPSL’s MVP last year with 14 goals and seven assists in 16 games. His numbers are down this year — just five goals, plus another in Open Cup qualifying — but his supporting cast was finding its way. The return from injury of ballwinner Chris Daly, the key cog in midfield, has been critical.
So was the discovery, if you will, of Dutch goalkeeper Robert Doemone, who just showed up at training one day.
“He heard from a friend that we had a team,” Cortezo said. “He was living in the area and wanted to know if he could play.”
Putting a consistent backline in front of him has helped. Taylor Varnadore, the only significant contributor to last year’s success that has played regularly in the back this season, is paired with Andrew Bailey in the middle, with teens Miguel Galvan and Oscar Valdez on the flanks.
It’s paid off in the postseason, with road wins over Southern California FC Hasental (2-0) and at West No. 1 seed Spartans FC (3-1), from suburban Portland.
Mora says stopping Middlemiss is the key.
“That’s a huge part,” he said. “When he gets on a roll, he’s hard to contain. He scores goals quickly and punishes you quickly. If you can contain him, you force other players on their team to step up, and that’s definitely the key to success against them. We need to take him off the ball and away from goal.”
Sacramento has feasted on the efforts up top by Jason Jones and Manolo Piña, complementary forwards who cause havoc for opposing defenses.
Jones, who has size, strength and speed, has 14 goals this year, with four multigoal games — he scored both in the 2-1 victory over the San Diego Flash in the Gold’s playoff opener — and a five-goal performance in a 7-0 rout of Real San Jose in April.
Piña, who has been with the Gold from the start, has 10 goals, including two hat tricks, the most recent in last week’s 5-2 romp over San Diego’s FC Force in the West semifinals. Jones missed that game because of a family commitment.
“Jason is a very tough forward to deal with,” Mora said. “And Manolo is very active, very tricky on the ball, deceptive. Give him a little too much space, he’ll find a way to punish you.”
That’s Cortezo’s take, too.
“Those guys are handfuls,” Cortezo said. “They’re very capable of breaking down a player individually, especially Manolo Piña. He’s a guy who can beat you on the dribble, and then that causes problems. They they start releasing players out of different lines, he starts making his move, finding the free player, and Jones slips behind.
“That’s how they can give us a problem. Definitely a game plan for us is keeping those guys contained.”
Ernesto Carranza, who has experience with Chivas USA’s reserve team, pulls the strings in midfield for Sacramento, and Nico Gonzalez — a redshirt sophomore for UCLA’s NCAA powerhouse squad — has been big the past few games on the flank. Center back Fernando DeAlba and right back Zach Ulrich are the defensive leaders.
Taking the fifth
The Sol won the past two meetings, both of them 1-0 decisions, and have gone undefeated against the Gold the past two years. Cortezo says that’s a plus for his team.
“We certainly go into the game knowing we’re capable of beating them, and we’ve shown it, and we’ll go in with confidence that we’ve won this [West final] in the past,” he said. “I think the flip side of that is they’re going to be looking at it and saying, ‘You know what? They’ve beaten us a couple of three times this year, but it’s always by one goal, it’s always tight, it’s our turn.’ I’m sure they’re looking at it and saying it’s hard to beat a good team three times in one season.”
That is what the Gold are thinking, sort of.
“We were cheering for Sonoma to [beat Spartans] so that we’d play against them,” Mora said. “I don’t know if it’s a confidence-builder for Sonoma, knowing they beat us two of three times [in the regular season]. That’s also a situation that can work against you. You keep beating a team several times, one of those games is going to get you, and this could be that game.”
It could go either way.
“It really comes down to which team can find the stride and momentum going into the finals,” Mora said, “and I believe we’ve caught that stride, and I believe Sonoma has also. I believe it’s going to be a very good game, and either team that wins will represent very well at nationals.”