SANTA CLARITA — It was all up to Martin Lopez as he set the ball down in front of the net, just 12 yards away from making history for Pajaro Valley United FC.
But like the other side of the pillow, Lopez was cool under pressure and came through with a sudden-death goal in a 5-4 win against Cuervos FC in Saturday’s United Premier Soccer League Western Conference Championship.
“I don’t like shooting PKs,” Lopez said. “Up to this one, I don’t really like PKs, but it came down to either me or another guy and I decided to take it since he wasn’t up for it either.”
It was the third-straight game Lopez was responsible for scoring the game-winner or game-tying goal to keep his team alive in the postseason.
“So I thought it’d be perfect to shoot this one as well,” Lopez said.
PV United coach Ernie Hurtado praised Lopez for becoming somewhat of the savior for his team.
“(Lopez) was pretty much was a big part in the final moments of all three games,” said.
Hurtado said the team is excited knowing it is the best in the Western Conference and ready to play in the UPSL National quarterfinals against Mountain West champion Utah Murcielagos.
“Now we gotta represent and go play against the Mountain West Conference and hopefully we can come ahead in this game, which will lead us to Texas next weekend,” Hurtado said.
PV United went toe-to-toe with Cuervos FC — the SoCal Division champs — for 120 minutes and then in a shootout battle that determined this year’s conference champion.
“It was a crazy win. That was another great team,” said PV United coach Ernie Hurtado about his opponents. “It just shows the heart and that we never gave up. We keep fighting until the end and we keep pulling it off.”
The players also fought against the warm temperature at The Master’s University, which was at 96 degrees prior to kickoff.
It was obvious the heat played a huge factor in the game, especially after the teams took three hydration breaks — including two in the first half.
Lopez said the heat did affect the game a bit, especially because the team isn’t used to playing in nearly triple-digit temperatures.
“It’s quite a drastic change,” Lopez said. “Somehow we got adjusted to the climate.”
Plus, PV United has gone into overtime in all three of its UPSL Western Conference playoff games.
“Both teams were pretty exhausted,” Hurtado said. “It was 100 degrees and the humidity was pretty bad as well. It definitely played a part.”
Cuervos FC was attacking early in the first half and got a shot on goal in the eighth minute but Jose Gonzalez made the first of many crucial saves.
Gonzalez made another stop in the 28th minute on a Cuervos FC breakaway.
PV United was set up with a golden chance to go up a goal on a breakaway of its own but one of the players was fouled inside the box and drew a yellow card to set up a penalty kick attempt.
David Ireta shot the penalty kick in the 36th minute, but the Cuervos FC goalkeeper blocked the shot and kept the game tied at zeros.
“Those could’ve been game changers,” Hurtado said. “The momentum was going our way in the first half but we couldn’t score.”
Ireta and PV United came in with the same attack in the second half.
PV United was set up with another open shot attempt in the 76th, but the ball hit the side of the net, causing even more frustration within the players.
In the overtime period, PV United came attacking again on a two-on-one opportunity but the pass dribbled short and Cuervo FC’s defense came up with a huge stop.
During the shootout, Gonzalez made back-to-back blocks to keep Cuervos from retaking the lead. Instead, it was Alexis Rincon who gave PV United its first lead of the game at 3-2.
Gonzalez delivered once again and blocked the second sudden-death shot, which then gave Lopez a chance to win it all for PV United.
Lopez knocked in his shot attempt and his teammates rushed him on the field to congratulate their hero of the game, yet again.
“It’s actually pretty special being able to seal the deal with this goal and be able to lift up the cup with this goal. It means quite a bit,” Lopez said.
Prior to Saturday’s win, PV United got past Contra Costa FC in a 5-3 shootout win in last week’s Wild West Division championship.
PV United also made one of its longest road trips of the season to Reno to take on Nevada in the division semifinals.
PV United advanced to the next round after it notched a 3-2 win in extra time against the Coyotes FC.
Lopez said it’s been an amazing experience up to this point, especially playing with a group of players that mesh well together.
“These past few games we’ve been getting along really, really well and hopefully we can extend that,” Lopez said.
Going into Saturday’s title game, Cuervos FC was ranked No. 7 in the UPSL Hub Top-10 rankings.
PV United was left off despite defeating Contra Costa FC and Nevada Coyotes in the playoffs, which were both ranked in last week’s the Top-10 rankings.
Up next, PV United faces the Murcielagos in the UPSL national quarterfinals at Zions Bank training center in Herriman, UT with kick off slated at 1 p.m.
The winner of that game moves on to the semifinals in Weatherford, Texas.
“In order to win we need to communicate and give it all we got. We have nothing else to lose,” Lopez said. “We’re not gonna go all the way to Utah for nothing. We need to come back with a title.”
PV United is seeking support from the community to make the trip possible and are asking for any donations on its GoFundMe page at gf.me/u/t47dmc
Editor’s Note: This article will be published in the July 19 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.