ST. HELENA — Napa Sporting needed only a tie to finish first in the Western Conference Wild West North Division, but it was not to be on a cold and smoky Sunday night at St. Helena High’s Bob Patterson Memorial Field.
After a scoreless first half, the second-place Nevada Coyotes scored twice to win the game 2-0 and take the three points and vault over Napa into first place in the last regular season game.
Despite falling short, Napa Sporting head coach Bernie Ochoa was proud of his team’s effort and energy.
“We’ll keep moving forward, and we’re in the playoffs where anything can happen,” he said. “But by not winning the division, we lost home field advantage and we’ll have to travel. We don’t know where yet, but we’re one of the final four teams and we still have a shot.”
Despite conditions that were far from ideal, the teams agreed to play the game to honor the memory of Alaina Housley.
“Her family is part of the Napa soccer community; it was important to all of us to come out and dedicate this game to Alaina and her family,” Ochoa said.
There was a moment of silence before the game.
On a night where Sporting needed all of its stars, both goalie Daniel Villapondo and midfielder Sebastian Herrera were unavailable due to injury. But the substitutes stepped in and never gave up.
But make no mistake, the Coyotes were big, fast and talented and Napa had its hands full from the opening kickoff.
“They are very strong, tall and athletic and have been together for some time,” Ochoa pointed out. “With us, we have new players coming in every season and a new lineup almost every game.”
Despite the relentless Nevada attack, strong play by Napa goalie Carlos Ayala and the Sporting backline of Henry Rabanales, Maurillo Lopez-Parra and Emanual Cruz kept Nevada off the scoreboard for the first 45 minutes.
Napa had few offensive opportunities in the first half and was not able to put a single shot on the Coyotes’ goal. Every time Sporting looked to have a promising attack in the works, the tall and talented Coyotes backline was able to keep the ball away from goalkeeper Daniel Town.
Nevada’s biggest weapon, literally, was 6-foot-4 forward Salifu Jatta, who looked to be a scoring threat every time he touched the ball. He had plenty of chances to use his height on the Coyotes plentiful number of first-half corner kicks, but Sporting goalie Ayala was always up to challenge.
“Carlos had a great game for us tonight, he had a lot of quality saves,” noted Ochoa, in what was assuredly the best effort of the season by the Sporting goalie.
If Sporting had hopes of a draw or even a win, they were dashed early in the second half. Nevada came out and threw everything into attack and almost scored in the 46th minute, but for Ayala’s diving save that pushed Jetta’s hard blast outside the left post. But just one minute later, Coyotes forward Anthony Chinchilla’s shot hit the right post and bounded directly to Jacob Crim, who found the back of the net for the critical first goal of the match.
Jatta almost made it 2-0 Nevada in the 54th minute when he hit the left post on a shot that had Ayala beaten, but this time the Napa goalie was able to gather the rebound and safely kick it away.
Knowing it needed just a tie to win its division outright, it was Napa’s turn to throw everyone forward and hope for the best. And it was nearly rewarded in the 60th minute when prolific scorer, St. Helena’s own Bryan Marin, finally was able to get around the Coyotes backline for a clean shot and unleashed a left-footed rocket that was just barely outside the left post.
Just eight minutes later, Marin got loose again and sent another hard shot, this time on goal, but Town was able to make the save and keep Sporting off the board.
The speedy forward was Napa’s best answer to the team speed of Nevada, but Marin said after the game that he was playing with a heavy cold which slowed him down.
“The smoky air sure didn’t help either,” he admitted.
“Obviously late in the game we pushed numbers forward to go for the tie,” Ochoa stated, “because a tie would have been a good result for us. But unfortunately that left us vulnerable and they were able to score again in extra time.”
And vulnerable they were. After a scramble in front of the Sporting net, Coyotes forward Suleiman Haruna-Iya was able to poke a shot past Ayala that sealed the deal for Nevada and gave them the three points for sole possession of first place and home field advantage.
“Two great teams were out there battling tonight, that’s why we’re both at the top of the division,” said a philosophical Ochoa. “It has been a great season; unfortunately tonight it didn’t go our way.”
But while first place and home field advantage would have been nice, as Ochoa noted, Sporting is in the playoffs and that’s the important thing, even though they don’t know yet whom they are playing and where they will be playing next.