Following the completion of NPSL Western Region matches on Wednesday night, the playoffs are now set. Each of the three Western Conference winners received the 1-3 seeds with those positions being determined by points per game. FC Arizona won the Southwest and will be the number 1 overall seed in the region, with the Golden Gate Conference winner, CD Aguiluchos, taking the 2 seed, and the Northwest winner, Kitsap SC, earning the 3 seed. The NW and the GG conferences received one more playoff team each, while the SW received an additional two-spots, plus one more for winning the Wild Card (8-seed). The match ups are as follows;
1) FC Arizona (SW) vs. Albion Pros (SW)
2) CDA Aguiluchos (GG) vs. Sonoma County Sol (GG)
3) Kitsap SC (NW) vs. FCM Portland (NW)
4) Orange County FC (SW) vs. Albion Pros (SW)
The Golden Gate Conference champions, CD Aguiluchos USA, will host Conference rivals, Sonoma County Sol, in the first round of the playoffs. CD Aguiluchos clinched the 1st place spot back on May 27th, while Sonoma clinched just this past Saturday, July 8th. The two Clubs have met a total of 3 times already in the regular season, so they are very familiar with one another. The Aguiluchos won the first two match ups of the season, but Somona was able to top the Conference champs in a must win 3rd game when the Sol were still fighting for the 2nd Conference playoff spot.
The first match between the Clubs this season took place back on April 15th when Aguiluchos traveled to Casa Grande High School, Sonoma County’s new home field for this season. The Conference’s leading scorer and 2-time defending NPSL Golden Boot winner, Simon Rawnsley, got the Aguiluchos on the board inside of 3 minutes. This was followed by one of the goals of the year in the Conference, when former NPSL player of the year, Ross Middlemiss, chipped the Sonoma keeper to double the lead. The Sol pulled one back via Diego Lopez, one of the teams top forward options, before Simon Rawnsley found the back of the net again to make the score 3-1. Taylor Varnadore scored a penalty kick for the Sol just before the final whistle as the game ended 3-2.
The two Clubs met for the second time about a month later on May 21st, but this time at Aguiluchos’ new home stadium, Burrell Field in San Leandro. The game was a high scoring affair that ended in a 5-3 win for Aguiluchos. Both Simon Rawnsley and stand-out midfielder, Jesus Maldanado, scored two goals a piece, while Club captain, Ricardo Guerra, added a goal of his own to go along with a pair of assists. While the Sol were able to pull the score level at one a piece in the 30th minute, they were never really in the match after that. Tyler Hurst netted a brace for the Sol as well, in the 5-3 loss.
For the third and final regular season match of the year between the two Clubs, the Aguliuchos came into the match off of their first two losses of the year. As well, the Sol were facing a must win situation to keep their playoff hopes alive. They traveled to Aguiluchos once again, this time to play at Chabot College in Hayward. The Aguiluchos got on the board first, much like in the first two meetings between the Clubs, with a goal by Napa Valley 1839 transfer, Armando Lopez Castro. The Sol was able to equalize the score with a goal by the Club’s leading scorer, Omar Nuno. Sonoma was then able to take the lead just before the half time break through another Conference Goal of the Year contender, Nicholas Lombardi, who fired a shot from at least 30 yards out into the back of the net. Omar Nuno would then add two more insurance goals to seal his hat trick and all but secure the 2nd playoff spot for the Sol.
Some of the key players for the Sol this year are many of the same ones that helped them reach the NPSL Championship game last year. The team’s leading goal scorer, Omar Nuno, has scored 8 goals this season for the Sol, including scoring at least once in the final 3 games, to help Sonoma earn the second playoff spot. Other key players include Nicholas Lombardi, who also scored in the final two games of the year and is the teams engine in the midfield from his defensive midfield spot. He also can play at an outside back spot and has a very effective left foot.
When talking about which Aguiluchos players to watch, you always have to start with the 2-time defending League Golden Boot winner. While Simon Rawnsley will not win that award for a 3rd straight time this season, he was still the Conferences leading scorer with 10 goals for his Club. The Captain, Ricaro Guerra, is another talented player for Aguiluchos. He can play at the right back or the right wing spot. Guerra made the NPSL team of the week three consecutive times at one point this season. Finally, a player who did not have the best season by his high standards, but has arguably been the best player in the entire Conference for 5 years now, is Ross Middlemiss. Middlemiss came into this season off of a tough injury that ended his last season early. He was unable for various reasons to play in a few of the team’s games this year, but will be the X-factor if Aguiluchos want to make a deep playoff run.
The Aguiluchos and the Sol have not only been the two most dominant teams in the Golden Gate Conference over the past few seasons. They are also the last two Clubs to win the NPSL Western Region playoffs, with Sonoma wining it last year and Aguiluchos wining it in 2015. The Aguiluchos have lost their last three games in a row, while the Sol have won their last 3 in a row, making the Sol the in form team even though Aguiluchos were Conference champions. While it may have been more appealing for there to be a few inter-conference match-ups in the first round of the playoffs, the fact that the Sol will play Aguiluchos in the first round will truly cement who is the best in the Conference.