Fusion Advance to Western Conference Final with 2-1 Victory of SoCal Seahorses.
Final Will Be Played Friday, July 29 in De Moines
The Ventura County Fusion advanced to the USL League 2 Western Conference final with a 2-1 victory over the SoCal Seahorses Sunday at Whittier College. It was the first win in three meetings for the Fusion who had tied its Southwest Division rivals twice on the year.
The win makes the Fusion one the final eight teams remaining in the playoffs for the 2022 USL League 2 season. Making it this far is never easy as teams must deal with a compressed season schedule, players leaving to return to college and a division composed of very good teams. Should it win on Friday, the Fusion will advance to the National semifinals, on July 31.
“We are extremely happy to advance within the final 8 teams in the nation competing to be Regional Champions,” said Head coach Mike Elias. “We not only qualify for Regional Finals but also the National Quarter Finals. That’s a great achievement for our team this year and we are all thrilled to be in the mix. We have it all to do again this coming Friday against Ballard in Iowa and we will be ready.”
The Fusion’s third game vs. the Seahorses featured a new strategy by Elias. The Fusion, who had dominated possession in the team’s first two meetings, ceded the ball, played cohesive team defense and hit the Seahorses time and again with furious counterattacks. Fusion striker Logan Farrington was a beast up front, providing excellent holdup play, securing clearances from the Fusion defenders and starting the attack. On the other side of the ball, each time the Seahorses advanced the ball to half field, it faced a wall of Fusion defenders which made it almost impossible for the Seahorse midfielders to attack in the Fusion half of the field.
The first goal of the game came just 16 minutes in, the result of a foul, 33 yards from goal, on Fusion forward Sergio Villalpando. Midfielder Bastien Oberli took the free kick from the left side and curled a dangerous ball into the box. Nathaniel Opoku, who had been uncharacteristically quiet in the Fusion’s divisional semifinal on Friday, rose up with his back to goal and angled a beautiful header into the right corner of the Seahorse net. It was Opoku’s fourth goal of the season and put the Fusion up 1-0.
Ten minutes later, winger Marley Edwards, fresh off a brace in the Fusion’s semifinal, almost doubled the lead, sending a shot from 25 yards out on the left side (almost the exact same place from where he scored the first of his two goals on Friday night) off the crossbar.
The Seahorses managed a few chances in the first half, but the majority were from distance and not on target. In the 32nd minute, Seahorse winger, Gerardo De La Torre, who’d been a thorn in the Fusion’s side all season, got behind the Fusion defense on a through ball by Quentin Hornung, but scuffed the shot for an easy save by Fusion goalie Tetsuya Kadono.
The second half began with multiple chances for both sides. Oberli hit the side of the net on a free kick, and Farrington sent a shot over the crossbar on a counterattack. Five minutes in, the Seahorses had a chance to equalize off a corner. Defender Marlon Vargas headed the service past Escareno, but Farrington, who was stationed astride the goal line, cleared it away, preserving Kadano’s clean sheet.
A short time later, Villalpando extended the Fusion lead to 2-0 converting at the end of yet another Fusion counter. Oberli threaded a pass through the retreating Seahorse defenders, leading Villalpando toward the left-hand side of the goal. Seahorse goalie Mitchell Wilson came out to cut off the angle, but he arrived too late and Villalpando slotted it through his legs and into the goal. It was Villalpando’s second playoff goal this year.
“We are very familiar with Seahorses having tied them twice already this season,” said Elias. “We were very aware of their threats and adopted a slightly different approach to the game which saw us on the ball more than previous games. We also created better opportunities to score I thought and believe we deserved the win.”
The Seahorses finally got on the scoresheet in the 76th minute. De La Torre ricocheted a shot from the right side off the crossbar that came down right in the path of Juan Barbosa who ran onto it and almost inadvertently chipped it into the goal.
The last 14 minutes and change were back and forth with the Seahorses chasing the equalizer. The Fusion defense, led by center backs Giovanni Calderon and Juan Pablo Alvarez, stiffened, cleared ball after ball, and time ran out with the score 2-1 in favor of the Fusion.
With the win, the Fusion advance to the Western Conference final against Ballard FC Friday, July 29 at 4pm at Valley Stadium in Des Moines. The 2022 USL League 2 playoffs conclude with the national championship game, August 6. The Fusion won the national championship in 2009 with a stoppage-time victory over Chicago Fire Premier, becoming the lowest-seeded team to claim the national title.