Napa — A Saturday evening in wine country turned out to be full of firsts for the 2017 East Bay FC Stompers.
It was their first-ever visit to Memorial Stadium to play Napa Valley 1839 FC, their newest rival in the NPSL Golden Gate Conference. It was the first time defensive stalwart Luigi Castillo and goalkeeper Marcus Rojas made it onto the field for East Bay FC this season. Forward Greivin Pacheco played in his first game for the Stompers since 2014.
And most importantly, the Stompers found their first win of the season as goals by Pacheco and Zano Mahic powered a second-half comeback that pushed East Bay FC past Napa by a 2-1 final.
"I am relieved," said East Bay FC head coach Martin Sierra. "The men have been working hard. This is a great reward for them."
Mahic scored in the 77th minute to give East Bay (1-1-4) the late lead. Pacheco headed a punt from Rojas ahead to Mahic, whose defender fell while trying to clear the ball. The burly midfielder eluded a second defender and slipped the ball between the goalkeeper and the near post from the corner of the goal area.
"I took advantage of the center back's poor defending, so I beat him one on one and slotted home the winner," Mahic said. "Once the ball left my foot, I knew I just won us the game."
Pacheco's 64th-minute score tied the game at 1-1. While Mahic barreled his way through a pack of Napa defenders to the right of the goal, Pacheco found space directly in front. Mahic earned the assist with a short cross that the speedy Costa Rican fired into the top of the net from the edge of the six-yard box.
"I knew we will score because I spoke with Zano, I told him to drive the ball and I will be in the box," Pacheco said. "When I saw him getting in there, I start making my movement in case the pass comes."
"The whole game, I was looking for an opportunity to get Greivin on the scorer's sheet, and once I passed by three defenders I knew he would be open," said Mahic, who was named Man of the Match for East Bay. "The goalie and last defender both committed towards me, and I saw him wide open."
After a scoreless first half, Napa (0-3-4) got on the board in the 47th minute when Gabriel Borges slipped behind the Stompers defense and threaded a pinpoint shot between defender Manny Vazquez and a diving Rojas that made it just inside the far post.
But this game also marked another first — in every other game this season, East Bay FC had allowed a pair of second-half goals. It might be luck that the milestone coincides with the two familiar faces reappearing in the back of the Stompers' formation; then again, it might not.
"Nobody likes to give up goals, but it happens," Sierra said. "When we are successful, it's a team doing; when we struggle, it's a team doing. Luigi and Marcus have a big presence when on the field. They both have NPSL experience, and it shows. We are happy to have them back."
Castillo, a mobile and offensive-minded outside back who is in his fourth year with the Stompers, had been out since preseason with a foot injury. Rojas, a Fremont native and Bellarmine College Preparatory alumnus who excelled for East Bay in 2016 late-season action, just completed his senior year at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania, where he posted 10 shutouts in 20 starts as goalkeeper for a varsity squad that went 12-6-2.
Meanwhile, Pacheco recently returned to the Bay Area after a stint in Costa Rica, where he plays on the national beach soccer team.
"I felt very good about getting back with the team and seeing some of my old friends," he said. "The new faces on the team have a lot of potential. I was happy that I helped the team to get a win with the help of my teammates."
The Stompers will try to build some momentum and claw their way back into the NPSL West Region playoff picture on May 20, as they host second-place Sacramento Gold FC (2-3-2) at Pioneer Stadium. While East Bay FC was earning the win against Napa Valley on Saturday, Gold FC was dealing conference-leading CD Aguiluchos USA (6-1-0) its first non-victory of the season with a 1-1 draw.
"Honestly, I'm only thinking about our next game against a tough Sacramento team," Sierra said. "If everyone does their job on the field, we will be successful — plain and simple."
"Doesn't matter how you start the season; it's all about how you finish," Mahic said. "We only had about six guys fully committed to the team up until two weeks ago, and we weren't getting results. Now that we have added quality players who are fully committed, there is no reason we don't make playoffs."
East Bay FC is at home for four of its last six matches. Tickets for all games are available at http://www.EBFCStompers.com.
Napa Valley will take a bye week before returning to action on May 27 with a visit to Petaluma to play Sonoma County Sol. In contrast to East Bay's late-season schedule, four of Napa's final five games are on the road.
The two teams tied 3-3 in their first meeting on April 8. Their third and final match of the 2017 regular season is scheduled for June 17 at Pioneer Stadium, the Stompers' home field, in Hayward.