As dusk began to set in over the horizon late Sunday evening, we kicked off against Occidental. Leading up to the match, we knew this game would be a test unlike any we had faced so far. The first five minutes of the match proved that notion. Occidental’s physicality and steel in the midfield initially overwhelmed us. We were second best to every 50-50 ball. Tackles went in but were to no avail.
Yet, despite their strength in the middle of the park, the game remained right in the balance. Neither team was able to create many chances. It was a classic game of cat and mouse. At around the twenty-minute mark, during the run of play, one of Occidental’s more dangerous players received the ball on the left sideline with only one of our defenders standing between him and the goal. With a quick drop of the shoulder, he skipped past our defender and put in a teasing cross from the byline. The ball arrived at the feet of one of their attackers who then expertly placed his shot in the bottom left-hand corner. Following their goal, we began to up our intensity. More forays into their half only yielded a strong, low shot by Gerardo De La Torre which was palmed out for a corner by their keeper. The half ended with the scoreboard reading Soka 0, Occidental 1.
After the halftime break, we came out with a renewed determination to keep the ball better in the midfield. However, in many ways, the first twenty minutes of the second half mirrored the first half. Our best efforts to keep the ball were met with crunching tackles by the opposition. It wasn’t until halfway through the second half that we finally began to unlock their sturdy defense. Glen McKay and De La Torre began threading several dangerous balls behind their defense. In one particularly promising exchange, De La Torre played a long, lofted ball over their defense for Yauri De Groot to run onto. De Groot then deftly maneuvered past one of their defenders only to see his tame shot gobbled up by their keeper. As the clock kept ticking down, we started to become visibly frustrated with our inability to carve out clear cut goal-scoring chances. It would have to take something special to score against this team.
With less than five minutes left on the game clock, McKay sprayed a ball out to De Groot on the left wing. Seeing that only one defender stood in his way to the goal, De Groot carried the ball at speed towards the byline. As a second defender came barreling towards him, he managed to split the two defenders with a neat piece of skill before arrowing a shot into the top right-hand corner past their keeper. We ended the second half on the front foot pushing for a winner. None came. The game would be heading to overtime.
In the first overtime period, Occidental came storming out of the blocks. They began to pepper our goal with shots. Fortunately, our keeper Maxwell Barranca was more than up for the task. Towards the end of the first period, we regained the ascendancy but were unable to create any real dangerous situations. The first period of overtime finished as it started with the scoreboard reading Soka 1 Occidental 1. Again, Occidental started out on the front foot and would have grabbed the winner early in the second period of overtime had it not been for the spectacular reflexes of our keeper. The longer the period wore on, the more both teams looked increasingly fatigued. The tempo of the game had dropped significantly.
At around the halfway point of the second period, we received an attacking free kick in a dangerous part of the field after one of Occidental’s defenders committed a foul. Up stepped De Groot to take the kick. With a nonchalant swing of the foot, De Groot hit the ball over the wall and past the outstretched hands of their keeper. Our bench erupted. De Groot threw off his shirt triumphantly and was quickly mobbed by all of us on the field. As we laid on the grass jubilantly celebrating our latest victory, one thought crossed our minds, could this be the start of a special season?