California United Strikers: LA Force Game Recap

Published Sep 23, 2019


Sept. 22, 2019

By Scott French

For California United Strikers FC

IRVINE -- California United Strikers FC would have struggled to invent a better home debut, on and off the field, than it enjoyed Sunday afternoon, when it cruised to its first National Independent Soccer Association victory in front of a large, vibrant gathering at Great Park's Championship Stadium.

Gustavo Villalobos provided an early lead and set up two second-half goals and goalkeeper Steven Barrera punctuated a superb defensive effort with a penalty-kick save as Cal United (1-1-1/W-L-T) romped to a 3-0 triumph over the visiting L.A. Force (1-1-0).

Christian Thierjung and Chris Klute also tallied for United, who offered a far more cohesive performance than in their first two NISA matches, a three-goal comeback for a 3-3 draw three weeks ago against the Oakland Roots and last weekend's 3-1 loss against San Diego's 1904 FC.

“I was just pleased that everyone stuck together,” head coach Don Ebert said when it was done. “There was a much better vibe. San Diego was a downer, we were down. We didn't play well, we missed a lot of chances, we were just down.

“We needed this. We needed a good team game, to feel good about ourselves and move forward.”

California United Strikers’ foundation is built on the Cal United side that won the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) fall title last year, exhibited tremendous growth from the first two games, especially on the attack. Ebert used his fleetest attacking unit -- Villalobos, Thierjung, Kevin Jeon and Abraham Villon Jr. -- to maximum effect. Their ability to interchange kept L.A.'s defense on its heels and led to plenty of opportunities.

That also was product of more time together. United, still young in a new Division 3 professional league, are just beginning to mesh.

“It's slowly coming together,” said Villalobos, the chief instigator of the United attack. “I think the first two games were maybe a little bit nervous, and we were also on the road, so that made it harder for us as well. Tonight was a better feeling. We'd been playing well, but we were always on the back foot, always chasing the game, and we had a different mentality today.”

The crowd of 2,092, which filled Championship Stadium's western stands and waved the club scarves handed out before the game, provided strong support, and United used it to their advantage, climbing to second in the NISA standings, two points behind Miami FC (2-0-0).

“It was amazing,” Villalobos said. “Honestly, all the people working in the [club] office, they've out in such good work. Everything was perfect. It couldn't have gone any better.”

Except, perhaps, the opening minutes of each half. L.A., which beat 1904 FC, 2-0, two weeks ago in Whittier, took command at the start, initially penning Cal United within its defensive third. Then, suddenly, the home side took control of the action. The second half started the same way, but United were quickly in charge again.

“I don't know what that is,” Ebert said. “We talk about our starts. Our starts aren't good. We've got to do something. At halftime I said the best thing to do is get a second goal and take the Force's heart out of it. They are already, I thought, a little tired -- but we start slow again, and there seems to be a moment when all of a sudden we kick it in, and then it looked good.”

Villalobos gave United an 11th minute lead, after Thierjung cut in from the right side and fed Villon, and defender Joshua Culwell, the Force's captain, failed to adequately deal with a ball into the box. It fell to Villalobos, who poked it between goalkeeper Miguel Marin Perez's legs.

They had chances to add to the advantage, but Gonzalo Salguero's free kick from just left of the L.A. box went untouched through the goalmouth in the 33rd minute, Culwell did well to dispossess Jeon on a counter led by Villalobos four minutes later, and Connor Johnson got in the way of Thierjung's attempt from a Jeon feed four minutes after that.

Once United absorbed a strong Force start to the second half, Thierjung doubled the advantage. It came from a low Villalobos cross  from the right flank, and Thierjung's first try bounced off Culwell and dropped perfectly for a second shot, which beat Marin Perez.

Ebert had made two changes at the back, giving Barrera his first start in the nets, after Kifi Cabrera struggled in the first two games, and inserting Michael Bryant as captain Xavier Fuerte's partner in central defense. The Force created some chances but rarely caused much havoc.

“Our backline, we've been really talking a lot over the last couple of weeks because we've gotten scored on, six goals in two games,” said Klute, who played five years in MLS for the Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers. “We figured out first home game, we should show everyone what we're actually capable of, and that's get a shutout.”

They got the clean sheet, thanks to Barrera. Fuerte, whose family had traveled from Hawaii for the game and presented the United players with leis, was late on a slide tackle on winger Ricardo Ruiz at the right edge of the box in the 57th minute, and referee Omeed Azadpour pointed to the spot.

Barrera, who has a history of success on penalties, dived to his right to stop Lorenzo Ramos Garcia's spot kick.

“That was huge. Just huge,” Villalobos said “I think if he hadn't saved that, it might have changed the game a little bit. It made a huge difference.”

Barrera had to depart immediately afterward with a cramp in his left leg -- “He couldn't stand,” Ebert reported -- and Cabrera didn't put a foot wrong over the last half hour. L.A. seemed to lose steam after the penalty miss, and United secured the win in the 80th minute, when Villalobos delivered a perfectly weighted through ball on a counterattack that Klute slotted past Marin Perez.

United’s attacking dynamism was impressive.

“A little bit of movement from the front four,” Villalobos noted. “We interchange a lot, we end up playing different positions, we have a very counter mentality and a quick attack, so I think that really helped us today.”

California United Strikers are back in action Wednesday night at Championship Stadium, taking on Oakland Roots (0-0-1) at 7 p.m.