Los Angeles Soccer: Liz Franco
SANTA CLARITA -- Fabian Sandoval has not the least doubt had his team not been hit hard by injuries down the stretch, it would be en route to Seattle for next weekend's W-League final four. And probably win the championship.
Instead, an immensely rewarding -- and seemingly surprising -- campaign in the United Soccer Leagues' women's competition ended in pain for Santa Clarita Blue Heat, which didn't quite have the manpower to overcome the Vancouver Whitecaps in Sunday night's Western Conference final at College of the Canyons.
Blue Heat (8-2-5) rallied from a two-goal deficit and enjoyed a man advantage for the final 10 minutes, but the Whitecaps (9-2-4) advanced to their second successive W-League final four in a 4-3 thriller.
Kailyn Kyle scored the winner, finishing from a goalmouth scramble in the 88th minute, her second goal of the game. UCLA star Sydney Leroux and former L.A. Sol defender Martina Franko also tallied for the Whitecaps, who will join host Seattle Sounders (5-5-4), Atlanta Silverbacks (11-1-0) and Ottawa Fury (14-0-0) next week in Tukwila, Wash.
“Expectations coming in for our coaching staff was to get to this point ...,” said Sandoval, who also is director of coaching for Santa Clarita United and a volunteer assistant with Cal State L.A.'s women's team. “I couldn't ask any more from our players with all the injuries this season. No doubt in my mind that if we had the same group that we started with, we'd be in Seattle. No doubt.
“[Vancouver is] a great team, but full squad with us, we're better than them any day of the week.”
Santa Clarita, a second-year club that won the conference regular-season title by a point over the 'Caps, was missing seven players, five of them starters, including likely conference MVP Edite Fernandes, a Portuguese national-teamer sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“She's the heart and soul. These girls know it,” Sandoval said. “I think she's the MVP of the W-League. We're lucky enough to have been able to see her play. She's that great of a player.”
Blue Heat (8-1-5) edged the Vancouver Whitecaps (8-2-4) by one point and two-time W-League champ Pali Blues (7-1-6) by two to move within 90 minutes -- Sunday night against the Whitecaps at College of the Canyons -- of the national semipro/amateur league's final four in Tukwila, Wash.
The Seattle Sounders (8-4-3), who finished fourth in the West, will join the three conference champions as host of the July 29-31 finals at Starfire Sports Complex.
Cal State L.A. All-American Liz Franco's sixth goal of the season boosted the Blue Heat to a 1-1 draw with the L.A. Strikers, and their second scoreless draw of the campaign with Pali Blues was enough to advance the Whitecaps, who are affiliated with the Major League Soccer club and played in last year's W-League title game.
Vancouver's hopes to win the regular-season title ended with a 3-3 tie against Colorado Force, which required a three-goal comeback after Erin Gunther scored a hat trick in the first 21 minutes for the Force. UCLA star Sydney Leroux netted the last two goals, her ninth and 10th, for the 'Caps.
All three contenders failed to assert control when given the opportunity down the stretch. Blue Heat won just once in their last six games and heads into the postseason without a victory in their last three games. Vancouver and Pali won just twice in their final six.
More on local clubs and players:
With Hollywood United departing for a rival league, the Ventura County Fusion might have figured they were in a two-team battle for the Premier Development League's Southwest Division title this year.
They would have been correct.
Only the other team isn't Orange County Blue Star.
The Fusion made that clear Friday night with a 7-2 pasting at Ventura College, running their record to 4-0-1. That's only worth second place -- Fresno Fuego, apparently their chief competition, is a point better, at 4-0-2.
The teams drew, 0-0, May 1 in Ventura and meet again June 11 in Fresno.
They're in another battle this week, for the division's berth in the U.S. Open Cup. Fresno won all four of its qualifying matches, and the Fusion is 3-0-0 heading into Saturday's PDL match against the Southern California Seahorses at La Mirada High School. Ventura County will advance if it wins by two or more goals or by one goal while scoring at least three. A 2-1 win forces a coin flip, a 1-0 win, draw or loss sends Fresno through.
Thousand Oaks' Danny Barrerra (Westlake HS/UC Santa Barbara) played the key role against Blue Star, setting up two goals -- his league-best fifth and sixth assists -- and scoring the finale.
Cal State L.A.'s women and Cal State San Bernardino's men -- the top regular-season teams in the California Collegiate Athletic Association -- were awarded expected at-large berths into the NCAA Division II tournaments.
None of the other L.A.-area schools were part of a decent CCAA contingent.
Cal State L.A. is headed to Seattle for the first two rounds in the 48-team women's bracket, and San Bernardino is one of three CCAA teams that will play at Chico State in Northern California in the 32-team men's tournament.
Six CCAA teams are in the fields.
Long Beach State's women are headed to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years after upsetting 11th-ranked UC Irvine, 1-0, in Sunday's Big West Conference tournament title game.
Defender Bo Rael (Rancho Cucamonga/Los Osos HS), an Oregon transfer, headed home a corner kick by UCLA transfer Nicole Sweetman (Oxnard/Oaks Christian HS) eight minutes into the second half to lift the visiting 49ers (14-5-2), who needed outstanding defense -- led by Alex Balcer, who repeatedly made big plays -- and a little bit of luck.
UCI (17-2-2) hit the goal frame three times, with left back Nikki Forrest (Upland/Upland HS) nearly pulling the Anteaters even with a drive off the right post in the 76th minute.
“We knew we had to have a game plan, we knew we had to be flawless, we believe in ourselves, we know we can beat anyone in the country with the right game plan and the right mentality, and the team's really come a long way,” said Mauricio Ingrassia (Los Alamitos/Los Alamitos HS and Cal State Fullerton), who has won three Big West regular-season titles in seven seasons as Long Beach State coach -- after winning five state and two mythical national titles at Long Beach City College.