07/03/2017 3:47 AM
Sacramento — Powered by another valiant appearance between the pipes from goalkeeper Marcus Rojas and an energetic effort turned in by a squad of players mostly not yet old enough to drink, East Bay FC earned a point Saturday night by wrestling second-place Sacramento Gold FC to a scoreless draw, providing an optimistic ending to an inconsistent and disappointing 2017 NPSL regular season for the Stompers.
Five players off the Stompers U23 squad — Kain Corral, Aaron Cortes, Brett Fuchs, Christian Mendoza and Martin Sierra Jr. — saw significant playing time against Sacramento, along with young first-teamers Isaiah Dairo, Ali Radmand and Rojas. At 22 years old, Mendoza and Rojas are the oldest players in that group.
"I'm very pleased with the performance of the [younger players]," head coach Martin Sierra said. "They came through when the chips were stacked against us and came home with a point against a very strong and veteran Sac Gold team."
Bolstered by veterans Gilbert Coulibaly, Augie McCabe, Mike Molinari and Zano Mahic, the youngsters withstood a consistent attack by Sacramento in the last game of the regular season for both teams. East Bay FC (3-3-6) finished its sixth season in the NPSL's Golden Gate Conference with 12 points, good for fourth place.
The result puts a serious dent in Sacramento's postseason hopes. The single point earned leaves the Gold (4-5-3) with 17, and for the moment, that’s enough for second place in the Golden Gate Conference and a playoff spot.
But third-place Sonoma County's 4-1 win over conference leader CD Aguiluchos USA on Sunday afternoon leaves the Sol (4-4-3) with 16 points, just one behind Sacramento — and Sonoma has one more game to play, a home match against last-place Napa Valley 1839 FC (1-5-5) on July 8, the final regular-season game on the conference schedule.
Based on their head-to-head record this season, Sonoma County holds the tiebreaker over Sacramento. The Sol would thus finish second and take Gold FC's playoff spot with any result but a loss against Napa Valley.
Although the result against Sonoma on Sunday marked the third straight loss for CD Aguiluchos USA (8-1-3), the San Leandro-based club ends the season with 25 points. It clinched the conference championship and the accompanying playoff spot on May 27.
East Bay FC entered 2017 with high hopes after ending the 2016 season with a late surge and a final-game victory to earn its first NPSL playoff berth. But those hopes were put to the test when the Stompers started out the new campaign 0-1-4.
"It was a tough season," Sierra said. "Quite a few players were battling injuries. We called up five U-21 players who ended up getting a lot of minutes throughout our campaign."
Winning three of four after the slow start, East Bay FC was once again able to climb back into the playoff race. But a draw against Napa on June 17 put the Stompers into a must-win situation, and they were knocked out of contention on June 24 by a loss to Sonoma County in their season's penultimate match.
"We came up a little short and just missed a playoff spot, but I was very happy with everyone's performance overall — especially the young guys," Sierra said.
"Now we build off of all the positives and work hard in the offseason," he said. "We have a lot of high-profile games coming up, as well as getting the men back in action to work out the kinks and get ready for the 2018 campaign."
Photos: Donnie Graham/East Bay FC, Rose Shoen