California United Strikers FC vs LA Force Game Recap

Cal United clinches their spot in the Championship Game
Published Oct 27, 2019

By Scott French
For California United Strikers FC

It might not have been the result the California United Strikers FC most desired, but Saturday night's draw with the L.A. Force felt a lot like victory and was celebrated as one.

Cal United is headed to National Independent Soccer Association's first West Coast Championship game after clinching a top-two spot in the division with a 2-2 tie in front of a spirited crowd -- including a strong turnout of visiting fans -- at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

Christian Thierjung scored his league-best sixth goal, Gustavo Villalobos netted his fourth, and a solid defensive effort all but quieted the home side, which twice rallied from deficits through odd goals, both of them off set pieces.

“We came here to make the final. That was the only goal,” head coach Don Ebert said when it was done. “How it happened [didn't matter] -- win, draw -- so I'm happy for the guys. They get to play the first time in the championship game for the West. That's a good accomplishment.”

Cal United (2-1-3), unbeaten in its last five games, held onto a one-point advantage over the Force (2-1-2), which would have claimed a title-game berth and No. 1 spot in the West with a victory and can do next weekend with a win or draw against San Diego 1904 FC (2-3-0) in the NISA Showcase regular-season finale.

Cal United would play 1904 FC for the fourth time this season if the home side beats the Force on Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium.

“I'm looking forward to the NISA final, whoever [our opponent] might be, L.A. Force or San Diego again,” Thierjung said. “We're very familiar with both, so we're just going to go out there and win this thing.”

Cal United would have clinched the top spot in the West with a victory over the Force and twice held a lead -- after Thierjung won and then converted a 20th-minute penalty kick and on Villalobos' superb individual effort in the 64th minute -- in a very physical, at times brutal encounter that played out much as expected.

“I thought it was the game we talked about,” Ebert said. “We talked all week about how it was going to be hard, it was going to be out of control. I thought that they would come hard and not play soccer with us. I thought we played with a lot of composure.

“I told the guys at halftime it was the best first 45 minutes I saw us play [this season] even though it was 1-1.”

Cal United might have scored more before the break. Michael Bryant struck the top of the crossbar with a header from a Gonzalo Salguero corner kick in the 11th minute, and the opening goal soon followed.

It was product of through ball from Chris Klute on the right flank for Thierjung, who sprinted behind the backline and into the box. Force goalkeeper Miguel Marin raced toward the top-right corner of his box and slid into Thierjung, who went down as referee Brandon Stevis pointed to the penalty spot.

Thierjung finished to the lower-left corner, extending his scoring streak to five games. The former Cal star shared the credit for his numbers.

“It's a great accomplishment. It's a great [ital]team[end ital] accomplishment,” he said. “It just shows how well our team has been playing throughout this season. My teammates made it easy for me. I just had to make the right runs, and I knew they would find me.

“It's all about putting away your chances, and I'm a confident goalscorer, so you've just got to keep pushing and believe you're going to score.”

Cal United might have added to its lead late in the half, but Marin made a fine stop on Salguero after a zig-zag run from the left flank in the 37th minute and Villalobos' sharp blast from the right was snagged by the goalkeeper two minutes later.

The Force had chances, too. Winger Ricardo Ruiz, a menace all night, just missed striker Marvin Merlano at the left post after cutting in across the top of the box from the right wing just five minutes in, Cal United goalkeeper Steven Barrera went to the ground to stop Merlano on the break in the 23rd, and center back Xavier Fuerte halted Merlano in the box after the Colombian won a duel with Adan Coronado on the right flank in the 44th.

L.A. pulled even on virtually the last touch of the first half. It came from a free kick about 16 yards inside Force territory, with Marin booming it into the Cal United box. Defender Giovanny Vazquez, about 15 yards from the net and a tad to the right, outleapt Salguero to nod the ball across the box, and fellow center back Joshua Culwell, free between Klute and midfielder Duncan Capriotti, buried it from about 8 yards.

Cal United threatened three times early in the second half, but Fuerte's header sailed wide from a Villalobos cross in the 48th minute, Bryant fired just wide from 25 yards in the 54th, and Marin deftly parried a Thierjung shot headed toward the right post in the 56th.

Villalobos finally got the go-ahead goal in the 64th, stripping the ball from Force left back Daniel Amo about halfway between the edge of the attacking third and the midfield stripe, then sprinting toward the center of the box. He cut it to his left foot as he reached the 18 and blasted it past Marin.

“I actually took a bad touch [on my run toward the box], thinking [the defender] was going to get it,” Villalobos said. “We kind of stopped a little bit, I saw that he didn't come, continued, just touched to my left, and just shot.”

The lead lasted merely 10 minutes. Force head coach Thales Peterson brought on Boniface Muchiri in the 70th minute, and the Kenyan national-teamer added life to L.A.'s game. He would be a constant nuisance, and he had an immediate impact, helping to win a corner kick and then delivering the cross from it that led to the equalizer.

Muchiri went near-post with the corner, Emanuel Guzman's glancing header sent it toward the goalmouth, and Barrera came off his line to punch the ball but didn't make the kind of contact he desired. Silva dos Anjos, about 16 yards out, forcefully headed it off one bounce back toward the goal, looping it over the scrum and under the crossbar.

The final 20 minutes offered little opportunity for a winner, and when one did come -- for the Force after Muchiri and Ruiz dispossessed Klute and send Merlano on a breakaway down the right channel -- it amounted to nothing. Merlano, Klute on his heels, fired far beyond the net.

The game closed on a sour note, with Coronado forced off with what appeared to be a left knee injury three minutes into stoppage.

The date for the West Coast title game has not been finalized and the site is expected to be determined this week, based upon venue availability. NISA officials could award the game to Cal United, to be staged at Great Park's Championship Stadium in Irvine, or select another venue that could, if SDCCU or Rio Hondo, be a neutral site, depending on Saturday's outcome.

Cal United wants to play host.

“Please, God, the game is going to be at Championship Stadium,” Cal United president Michael Collins said. “I think that pitch is fantastic to have the final there.”

The West Coast champion, along with the winner of the Nov. 9 East Coast title game pitting host Miami FC against Stumptown Athletic from Matthews, N.C., will advance to the playoffs that follow the NISA's spring season in 2020.


L.A. Force 2, Cal United FC 2
CU -- Christian Thierjung pen. 20
LA -- Joshua Culwell (Giovanny Vasquez) 48+
CU -- Gustavo Villalobos 64
LA -- Leonardo Silva dos Anjos 74

L.A. Force: Miguel Marin; Mark Tanko, Joshua Culwell, Giovanny Vazquez (James Alewine, 67), Daniel Amo; Emanuel Guzman (Frantz Dalusma, 78), Leonardo Silva dos Anjos, Ever De La Torre (Enrique Cardenas Jr., 58); Alvaro Madrigal-Zavala (Boniface Muchiri, 70), Marvin Merlano, Ricardo Ruiz.

Cal United FC: Steven Barrera; Chris Klute, Xavier Fuerte, Adan Coronado (Beto Navarro, 93+), Gonzalo Salguero; Abraham Villon Jr., Duncan Capriotti, Michael Bryant (Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, 73); Gustavo Villalobos, Christian Thierjung (Omar Nuño, 64), Kevin Jeon (Evan Waldrep, 46).

Yellow cards: Silva dos Anjos 15, Culwell 22, Bryant 34, Thierjung 48+. Klute 84.

Referee: Brandon Stevis. Att.: N/A.