22 Feb Semifinal Victory has San Pablo Football Club Headed for NSL Pacific Division Championship
“We can’t stop taking them now,” one San Pablo FC player said Saturday of the photos the team has come to take after every game. “We keep winning.”
Story and photos by Joseph Porrello
The San Pablo Football Club were triumphant in their NSL Pacific CA North Division semifinal game Saturday night in El Sobrante, shutting out the Marin County Soccer Club by a score of 4-0.
Earlier this month, San Pablo FC celebrated their regular season title after taking down Marin 3-0.
The Feb. 4 win helped San Pablo become the only team in the history of the NSL Pacific CA North Division to finish atop the standings twice, the first instance coming in their division’s inaugural 2019-20 season.
The team now has three consecutive shutouts, including an 8-0 win over the NorCal Shockwaves on Feb. 11. Outscoring opponents 15-0 in that stretch, San Pablo FC has hit their stride at the right time.
“We’ve had a tough season with injuries and people being in and out, but the last few games, pretty much everyone’s been here, and we’ve been looking really good,” said San Pablo FC head coach Omar Bautista.
It took a little while for San Pablo FC to get going in their semifinals match though, getting a quick yellow card for cursing about a call made by the referee and coming up short on their first three potential scoring opportunities.
A Marin County player making a hard slide tackle and receiving a yellow card positioned San Pablo well to change the game’s tide in the 28th minute. The resulting free kick deflected off a player’s shoulder, the Marin goalie, and the goal post before finally being put into the back of the net on a jumping header from San Pablo attacker Mynor Duarte.
Marin County SC almost immediately answered with a goal of their own, but the shot attempt was hauled in by San Pablo FC goalkeeper Orlando Perez.
The San Pablo defense kept the amount of saves necessary from Perez limited. Marin County had two corner kicks, three free kicks, and one shot that nearly hit the post as essentially their only offensive pressure for the remainder of the match.
“Defensively, I thought we did really well just winning balls in the air, especially because [Marin County FC] were kind of trying to play balls in behind us,” said Bautista.
Much of the output on offense from San Pablo FC came from midfielder Erik Montes, who lasered a shot into the net from about 25 yards out in the 35th minute; the Marin goalie was motionless as the shot whizzed into the top corner of the goal.
“It was amazing. I was screaming right after,” said Montes. “I haven’t scored a goal like that in a while.”
San Pablo FC almost scored another unique goal just before the mid-game intermission when they caught the Marin County goalie out of position and lofted a shot over him from roughly 35 yards away, causing him to run into the goal post while sprinting and looking over his shoulder as the ball barely missed the crossbar.
At halftime, San Pablo held a 2-0 lead. Then, Montes notched his second goal of the match just three minutes into the second frame.
Montes has been a steady force offensively for San Pablo FC all season in his first year with the team, finishing No. 2 in the the NSL Pacific CA North Division Golden Boot rankings with eight goals in nine regular season games.
“I always give 100 percent to try and help the team. It’s not just about me,” said Montes. “The reason we’re here now is because of a team effort.”
The only player ahead of Montes in the aforementioned Golden Boot rankings is Khaled Aliwoig of Yemen United California, whose 15 goals broke the record of 14 set by former San Pablo FC attacker Pedro Hernandez in the 2019-20 season.
It was current San Pablo attacker Irving Perez who all but put the game away in the 70th minute when he maximized a transition chance on offense and made the deficit for Marin County SC grow to four.
“I feel really good about how well we moved the ball and finished the opportunities we had,” said Bautista. He added that he thought San Pablo FC controlling the game by passing the ball from sideline to sideline to break down the defense of Marin County SC had the biggest impact on his team’s success over the course of Saturday’s game.
The San Pablo defenders themselves were almost broken down and nearly had their shutout streak snapped in the 87th minute when Marin County put the ball into the back of the net. However, the late goal was ultimately waved off by one of the linesmen for being offside.
Both teams kept things respectable throughout the match, as a lot of talking amongst both sides took place, but not between them.
“I think our success comes from communicating a lot in the field,” Montes said. “We gain confidence the more we talk with each other.”
With Saturday’s triumph, San Pablo FC secured a spot in the NSL Pacific Conference Tournament Cup Final. Immediately after the game, players and coaches did not yet know who their opponent would be out of the other semifinal game played simultaneously.
“The only team that beat us this season was San Leandro United, so it would be kind of nice to see them in the finals and try to get that win,” said Bautista.
Montes was looking forward to potentially avenging his team’s lone defeat.
“Oh, for sure. It’s going to be a hell of a game if we do play [San Leandro United],” he said.
As it turns out, San Pablo FC will indeed take on their desired opponent after San Leandro United defeated Yemen United in the opposing semifinal match.
San Leandro United finishing second in the NSL Pacific CA North Division standings this season and winning the Conference Cup Final last season does not worry Montes.
“They do have some good players, but we could have beat them the first time,” he said. “They just got lucky.”
The final will be held Feb. 25 at De Anza High School, where San Pablo FC played for the first time in Saturday’s game. Normally, the team’s home matches take place at MLK Park in Richmond, but the location was recently moved due to permit issues.
Bautista said he wants his team to work on calming the game down when they’re ahead, noting that trying to move the ball up quickly on offense while holding a multi-goal lead almost caused them some trouble.
“We just have to make sure our mistakes don’t turn into goals for the other team,” added Montes.
A Conference Cup title has eluded San Pablo FC thus far, but the matchup coming this weekend will be their second trip to the finals in the team’s history. Bautista will try to guide his team to taking home their first piece of NSL Championship hardware in his first season at the helm.
“It’s time to finish off all the hard work we’ve put in,” said Bautista. “Hopefully, we can get that trophy because I know that’s why I was brought in here.”