SAN CLEMENTE – The margins are slim in the South Coast League, but the San Clemente boys soccer team capitalized on one of its schedule advantages on Friday, Jan. 20.
After opening league play with three straight road games, San Clemente kicked off its run of four consecutive home games with two first-half strikes from Max Gonzales to take down visiting San Juan Hills, 3-1, in a South Coast League game at San Clemente High School.
“Our focus now is to win all four home games,” San Clemente coach Chris Murray said. “We’ve done well, but we now have to win four in a row. So, that’s one out of the way.”
San Clemente (6-3-6, 2-1-1) took a different result in each of its first three league games with a 1-0 loss at Aliso Niguel, an 8-0 win at Capistrano Valley and a comeback 2-2 draw at Mission Viejo. After the first run through the South Coast League, the Tritons sit in a snug third place behind first-place Mission Viejo (9-1-3, 3-0-1) and second-place Aliso Niguel (8-1, 3-1-0).
San Clemente begins the second run through the league with Aliso Niguel at home on Monday, Jan. 23. After hosting Capistrano Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the Tritons take on Mission Viejo on Jan. 30 and finish the season at San Juan Hills (4-6-1, 0-4-0) on Feb. 1.
“I think this definitely could be a turning point in our season,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales called Friday “one of our biggest games of the year,” as the Tritons exacted a little revenge on the reigning league champion Stallions. San Juan Hills edged out San Clemente for the South Coast League title with a tight win at Thalassa Stadium late last season.
San Clemente came out quickly off the opening kickoff and pressed the early possession advantage. Gonzalez got the Tritons on the board with his first strike in the 10th minute.
Finn Linas won a ball at midfield and played it through to Gonzalez, who was able to finish at the near post to put San Clemente ahead.
“He’s been the focal point of our attack,” Murray said. “He’s a multi-sport athlete, and a great student, and that shows up in how hard he works. He’s our top goal-scorer, and he gives us a great outlet.”
Five minutes later, San Clemente earned three consecutive corner kicks but couldn’t break through, as San Juan Hills held down its own box.
However, Gonzales found space behind the Stallions defense in the 20th minute. On the break, Gonzales got the shot off straight at the Stallion keeper, but the ball ricocheted right back to his own feet and straight to the back of the San Juan Hills net for the two-goal lead.
Four yellow cards were handed out late in the first half, two to each side, as the game steadily got more physical.
San Juan Hills didn’t back down to open the second half and flipped the field with an increased energy. San Clemente held strong through the early waves of pressure.
“When it’s 2-0, they’re always going to fight back because that’s a good program,” Murray said. “We’ve a lot of maturity now in defense. That helped us get back into the game, and we executed well tonight.”
Despite the Tritons’ strength in the back line, San Juan Hills eventually earned a spot on a scoreboard, when the Stallions were awarded a penalty kick. Max Acosta blasted a shot off the San Clemente goalie’s outstretched fingertips to bring the Stallions within a goal, 2-1.
However, San Clemente quickly stamped out any San Juan Hills comeback hopes.
Just a minute later, a San Clemente free kick sailed straight into the San Juan Hills box, and Jacob Poole sold out for the leaping header to put the ball into the net and the Tritons back up by two goals, 3-1.
San Juan Hills couldn’t muster any more dangerous opportunities, and San Clemente pressed the pace to close out the win.
San Juan Hills has now lost five games in a row with just two goals scored in those five games and nine goals allowed.