Just a few minutes away from elimination, defending National Champions Santa Barbara SC White (CA-S) continued to pressure the Vardar (MI) net in hopes of a goal that would send the California side back to the title game.
After sending ball after ball into the box, it appeared Santa Barbara wouldn’t be able to break the Vardar defense. But in the 77th minute, Carson Vom Steeg was able to get just enough on a pass to slide it in front of goal, where Raul Guerrero put the ball in the back of the net. The goal gave Santa Barbara the 2-1 win
and sent it to the Under-15 Boys final for a chance to repeat at the 2013 US Youth Soccer National Championships, presented by the National Guard, in Overland Park, Kan.
"I knew all I had to do was touch it, get anything on it and it would go to Raul, who was running into the back post," Vom Steeg said. "I got enough on it to get it to him. It was his job to finish it off."
Santa Barbara entered Friday’s game needing a win against Vardar to advance. With the game tied at one each in the 60th minute, the defending champions had a prime opportunity to get a crucial go-ahead goal. A Santa Barbara header off of a corner kick was traveling for the goal when Vardar forward AJ Shaw handled the ball along the goal line. Shaw was given a red card, and Santa Barbara was awarded a penalty kick.
While the penalty spot has been kind to Santa Barbara in the past — they won last year’s National final, as well as the 2013 Region IV Championship semifinal and final in a shootout — the squad wasn’t as lucky on Friday. The attempt went wide right, and Santa Barbara was left with 20 minutes to find a vital go-ahead goal.
Even though his team missed a great chance to take the lead, Santa Barbara coach Rudy Ybarra said he knew his players had the character to overcome that and grab a winner.
"I felt we still had enough time to get the winning goal, and I felt they had it in them to do it," Ybarra said. "When I talked to Raul before he went in, I said, ‘Raul, this is your rested time. You need to go in there and make a difference.’ He said, ‘Coach, I will.’ And I’m glad he followed through."
The California side was forced to come through with the dramatic late goal after Vardar, which entered the game with a two-point edge in Pool A, answered an early Santa Barbara goal with a strike of its own.
Each team used solid build-up play to set-up their first goals. In the 9th minute, Santa Barbara’s Chairat Puengrod gathered the ball at the top of the box and slid a pass to his right, where Brandon Sanchez hit it home to give his side the early lead.
Vardar responded nine minutes later when Thomas Dokho received a pass on the right side of the box and hit a perfectly-struck shot into the left corner to put his team back in control of the game.
"I would prefer to score as soon as possible and give us a chance to look for that second goal with a little more patience to try to take control of the match," Ybarra said. "But Vardar is a good team. They came back. From the get-go, they were causing problems for us, and we were causing problems for them."
The teams exchanged a few partial chances before Vardar was reduced to 10 men in the 60th minute. With Santa Barbara needing a goal to advance, it took control of possession and pushed for the all-important winner.
Vom Steeg said the Vardar players made it very difficult to break them down, even when they were down a player. The Michigan side didn’t give them much room to operate and pressured the ball throughout the game.
But Ybarra said teams don’t have the success that his has enjoyed without having the character and heart to overcome such challenges. And while they continue to come away with tight finishes that would be stressful on any coach, he’s just happy to be returning to where he believes his team belongs — the championship final.
"Someone upstairs has taken care of me with such a blessed group of families and players," Ybarra said. "I’m just going to keep going on for the ride, let them control the gears and hopefully we’ll do well in the final and repeat as the National Champion. I feel great that we’re there. They feel great. They’ve earned it."