Tony Flores/Hollywood United FC
Hollywood United's Arturo Albarran shoots past Santa Ana's Andre Turoldo during Saturday's Western Conference semifinal.
Hollywood United FC took advantage of an early red card and cruised past the Santa Ana Winds in a National Premier Soccer League playoff opener Saturday night in Los Angeles.
What was happening 100 or so miles to the south might have meant more to the Hitmen's championship hopes.
HUFC's 3-1 victory at Crenshaw High School, on goals from Ghanaian forward Emmanuel Bentil, former Chivas USA winger Brent Whitfield (Long Beach/Poly HS and Cal State Fullerton) and Nick Blanco (Loyola Marymount), sends it to the Western Conference final next Saturday against the Sacramento Gold, which stunned the San Diego Flash -- the best in the West -- in the other conference semifinal.
The winner will advance to the league final four in Alabama at the end of the month.
Santa Ana played a man down from the 11th minute, after goalkeeper Carlos Alberto Hernandez was red-carded for handling the ball outside his box. The Hitmen took advantage right away, with Bentil scoring from Carlos Morales' corner kick in the 17th minute.
Whitfield headed home Arturo Albarran's cross in the 31st, and Blanco beat three defenders on a run from midfield for the third goal just five minutes into the second half. Greg Piechota (Cal State Dominguez Hills) tallied for the Winds (7-5-1) in the 35th minute.
Hollywood United (12-2-1) was the top seed for the Western final four but really were second-best. The Flash (10-4-1) had lost on the field just once this season -- it forfeited two games, including a 3-1 start-of-the-season triumph over the Hitmen, for using an ineligible player -- was coming off a 5-1 destruction of HUFC in the regular-season finale and were overwhelming favorites to represent the West in Alabama.
Sacramento (8-3-4), the defending NPSL champion, ousted San Diego, 2-1, to set up next week's clash at Crenshaw. Hollywood United won the first meeting this season with the Gold, 3-0, and the second was a 1-1 draw.
HUFC, which in the spring moved from the USL's Premier Development League to the NPSL, had reached the playoffs in both of its previous seasons but failed to advance.