Two different teams, two different leagues — and the same spot in their respective playoff runs.
The two soccer squads, featuring some of the top players who have suited up for Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and elsewhere, are both at critical junctures in their respective seasons.
Saturday night marks the opening game of playoffs for both the Sonoma County Sol in the National Premier Soccer League and newcomer California Victory FC in the United Premier Soccer League.
The Sol, who started off slow this season but finished second in the Golden Gate Conference with three consecutive, crucial wins, will be on the road as the No. 7 seed, playing longtime rival and No. 2 seed CD Aguiluchos in Oakland. California Victory FC, who finished tops in the Northwest Conference after going 14-1-1 (but dropped their most recent game, 4-2, to Boise FC Cutthroats on June 24) will host fourth-place finishers Real San Jose (8-7-1) at 7 p.m. at Montgomery High School.
A quick primer on the newly established Cal Victory: Led by leading scorer Jesus Patino, the team has scored 57 goals and allowed just 12 heading into postseason play. That could point to tons of offensive firepower, or soft conference competition.
While some games have been blowouts (Cal Victory won its first three games with a cumulative 16-0 goal differential), manager Don Shaffer said the top half of the conference was tighter and prepared the team for its playoff run.
“The top four teams in the league are very, very competitive,” he said.
The roster includes former Casa Grande High standout and 2013 All-Empire Player of the Year Noah Wilson, who just wrapped up his playing career at UC Davis, as well as 2012 Elsie Allen grad George Alvarez and midfielder Gabriel D’Ambrosio, who just graduated from Sonoma State.
If the team makes it through Saturday, it is scheduled to travel to Southern California for an eight-team national final round July 28, 29 and 30, Shaffer said.
The Sol, on the other hand, struggled early, only to come through with three consecutive wins in their last three contests to secure a spot in the playoffs. But if history is any guide, the Sol know how to navigate the postseason. The team won the NPSL national championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2005, 2013 and again last season.
“It’s one thing I have learned, doing this over the last five or six years, is not to give up on this team,” Sol coach Vinnie Cortezzo said. “There is something special about this group.”
Special, too, was the late addition of defenders Chris Rodd and recent Sonoma State grad Dane Shaffar, who captained the Seawolves in his senior season. And thanks to five goals in three games from Healdsburg High and Santa Rosa Junior College grad Omar Nuño, who went on to star for Chico State before wrapping up his collegiate career last fall, the Sol are finding their groove at a crucial moment in the season.
“I think we are really peaking at the right time,” Cortezzo said. “Last year it was similar — I think we had to win our last two games to get into the playoffs then went into the playoffs with some momentum.”
That momentum carried the Sol through to a runner-up finish in the national championship game against AFC Cleveland.