On Sunday, the SF Elite Academy 2002 Boys traveled to the Santa Clara Youth Soccer Park for what would be the decisive match in the NPL 1 spring season. The SFEA 2002 Boys entered the match in second place and needed a win to secure the NPL1 title as then first-place Monarcas 02 Boys had already played their final match and held a two-point edge. In addition, Santa Clara Sporting 2002 Boys Green were just one point behind Elite in third, but also with a game in hand, meaning Sunday's hosts needed a win or tie to be in the driver's seat to claim the title themselves.
Played in perfect weather on the pristine grass field at the Santa Clara Youth Soccer Park, both teams served up a great display of soccer. Early on, Santa Clara appeared dangerous in the counter attack and nearly capitalized on several corner kicks using routines they had obviously worked on in training. SFEA first-half keeper Nicolas Galleno was forced into several big saves.
By the end of the half, however, SF Elite was getting the ball into the corners with numbers crashing into the Santa Clara box, which led to multiple golden chances, including a shot just over the post from wing Ellis Brenneman. The first half also saw an audacious outside of the foot chip shot by SFEA forward Aidan Hyde that just struck the wrong side of the left post.
While the half ended 0-0, early in the second SF Elite kept working the ball forward on a foundation of defensive pressure and decisive ball winning, especially from holding midfielder Reid Pollino. The break through finally came when midfielder Owen Flanagan, scored on a knuckling free kick that found the upper left net, untouched, from a strike of around 25 yards.
The goal spurred Santa Clara into action and soon the game opened up with quick counter attacks both directions. SF Elite was frustrated by what appeared a penalty only resulted in a free kick on the top of the box and a subsequent blocked try on goal. And then the increased pressure finally paid off for Santa Clara when SF Elite failed to build out of a corner clearance. A terrific one-on-one play deep in the box from a Santa Clara player led to a slotted goal from a tight angle, and the game was tied 1-1.
From there, both teams looked like possible winners. Santa Clara had several end-to-end chances but great center back play from SFEA's Thibault Jamey and Declan Pantankar (and supported by second-half keeper Alex Lopez) kept the score even. Then, with just a few minutes to play, William Murray, who had been moved into central striker from his normal left back position, broke onto a long pass to get in on goal. With a defender leaning into him from behind, William managed to punch the ball between the keepers legs and recover his balance in time to smash the ball into an empty net. A huge celebration erupted on the SF Elite sideline which led to a referee warning, and the last few minutes saw SF Elite defending a couple dangerous corners until the final whistle was blown.
Head coach Mauricio Diaz De Leon was delighted with the win, and he credited the moment meeting the team's growth at just the right time, saying, "It was the perfect day for soccer. Mother's Day, on an excellent pitch, with the chance to win something. This whole season we've talked about consistency and executing the simple things. Before the match started, I told them regardless of what happens, we're in this together. I couldn't be more proud of their response. The boys embraced the challenge and competed until the last minute. They played and fought together as one. It was great to see the smiles on their faces after the win. The team worked hard and earned every bit of the celebration. "
The 2-1 win pushed the SF Elite Academy 2002 Boys to a 5-1-1 league season and an unassailable position at the top of the NPL 1 table. And, remarkably, it marks the team's second league championship in a row as the SF Elite Academy 2002 Boys also won NPL 2 in the fall of 2016. The entire SF Elite Academy staff congratulates the team and Mauricio, and looks forward to more achievements ahead.
all photos courtesy of John Murray, rights reserved
The SF Elite Academy
Our mission is to provide an elite level program for soccer players in San Francisco.