So the NPSL Southwestern Conference season is over and the results have been tallied up:
On Saturday, June 30th, Orange County FC hosted FC Arizona, in a play-in round for the final playoff spot allocated to the Southwestern Conference. Orange County would end up winning 3-0 against fourth place FC Arizona. Watching the competition play this year, gives me hope that all three clubs (ASC San Diego, FC Golden State and Orange County FC) will represent and highlight some of the great local soccer occurring in our region. Just take a look at this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, FC Golden State Force (sister club to conference rival FC Golden State) made it to the fourth round, where they lost to MLS side, Los Angeles Galaxy. Looking back on the season: I think of my favorite matches, how we played, different starting lineups we could play, but most importantly all of the interactions I was able to have with people who just loved the game as much as I do.
This season was a roller coaster for us. It was heartbreaking seeing the talent that we have, in the Inland Empire, and not making the playoffs.
Jose “Chepe” Esqueda
5th place, definitely not Riverside’s target for the season, but as our Social Media Admin Salvador likes to say “ atleast we did better than Temecula.” NPSL Southwestern talent was strong this year with players like Sean Callahan of ASC San Diego, Cesar Mexia Casillas of FC Arizona, Cody Shelton of Orange County FC, and so many other players that have shown their ability to perform at this level. The next step is getting all of these talented players an opportunity to play against stronger opposition, a chance to put their skills to the test and make them better players.
It’s no secret that U.S. Soccer is a closed system, meaning once a team proves their quality within their current division/ level, they can’t earn promotion to a new division/ level. One example of how the current system rewards performance, are playoffs. Playoffs call for that do-or-die mentality; when everything is on the line can you perform. Unfortunately, fans will have to continue to wait for pro/rel, but organizations should continue to think of innovative ways to help further develop their players.
Friendlies have been a way for teams to challenge cross-league rivals or even clubs from another country. Riverside Coras have hosted three friendlies this year: Toros Neza USA (UPSL), Valley FC (SoCal Premier) and Club Tijuana Reserves (Liga MX). Each of these friendlies have given opportunities to new talent within the squad. Toros Neza USA, a pre-season friendly that allowed all of the new collected talent, a chance to build some much needed chemistry. Valley FC saw an academy player step up and play in two matches. This last friendly against the Xolos u20s gave players like Emilio Huerta and Promise Adebayo-Ige, who came in late during the season, a moment to shine and prove their worth.
The center defensive midfielder, the number six, the pivot, the most important position for most teams in the Southwest. Offensively, teams will try to play through the wide channels; giving their wingers the ball in space, on the break or allowing them to attack a defender one-on-one. Passing horizontally, through the pivot, has been essential tactic for finding these chances; Luis Cardona (ASC San Diego) and Eric Gonzalez ( Riverside Coras) have both been great examples of this.
For the majority of the season Riverside would play with three central midfielders: Eric Gonzalez/ Shane Shelton as the #6 (center defensive mid), Hugo Gutierrez would act as the pure #8 (box-to-box) and Shane Shelton/ Romario Lomeli as the #10 ( playmaker). The central defensive midfielder’s role was to shore up the gap, in front of the consistently overlapping backline, then finding the long diagonal runs from the wingers/ wing backs. If those options weren’t available, the midfield partners would help move the ball through the center of the pitch. The combination of the three allowed for playmaking from a deeper position, aggressive center mids who can close down teams trying to build through the middle, all while allowing play to be recycled back to the deep-lying playmaker.
Coras attacking strength lied in the wings, specifically the left side. Since the introduction of Yosimar Hernandez ( left back who has played collegiality with UCR) the Coras have had an extra attacking threat. Yoshi’s pace, dribbling and awareness of open space allows him to either overlap his wing partner ( looking for the cross or pass back to retain possession) or under lap ( dribbling in towards the box looking for the assist or shot on goal.)
In the last couple games of the season, I began to notice a defensive scheme that was being utilized to help with the space that had been vacated by Yoshi.
Lets look at the backline:
Promise and Jimmy are predominately fullbacks, while Jose is the more traditional defender. When Yoshi leaves to attack, the remaining three defenders shift over. Promise and Jimmy can cover the vacated space, close down on the ball and then transition to attack. Jose’s size and strength helps him shut down the direct ball, while his positioning helps mark off attacking zones. For Riverside, these tactics didn’t start to blossom till the end of the year, which helps strengthen the desire of an extended season. Currently the NPSL season is only twelve matches plus playoffs. A growing player needs competitive minutes; when you only play for three months out of the year, you can’t properly develop and practice your skill.
Even with a small season, it led to plenty of great moments on the field. The Coras opened the season against our biggest rivals, Temecula FC. The match would be a fight for 90 minutes on the pitch and in the stands. Fans dueled it out with shouts and cheers while the two teams traded goals. That match got me excited for the season. I wanted to see Riverside get that second chance at beating Temecula, and on May fifth, the Coras would do just that.
As the season continued to roll on and Riverside began to click tactically, they faced a first place FC Golden State; this would be new head coach Robert Vidrio’s biggest test to date. Riverside would lose 3-1 but controlled majority of the match, losing to late-half mistakes. Even as a loss this was one of my favorite matches of the year; this was when I, and other Coras fans, would discover Shane’s dominance in the air and the emergence of the best wingback in the NPSL, Yosimar Hernandez.
The season would end on a high-note, drawing third place Orange County FC 3-3. With the playoffs out of reach, Riverside would have to suit up for pride and for Riverside. For all of our matches I tend to take thorough game notes, but this match up was different. I just wanted to see the Coras play through each half without conceding a goal in the final moments, that was our kryptonite. Forty-fourth minute hits and Riverside had been controlling the match to that point , but OCFC had the ball and they were attacking. It seemed like an eternity as Orange County continued to take attempts on goal. That whistle would blow and the Coras stood their ground.
I think our last four games we finally started to put it together. I think it just took us longer than we would like for us to finally get ourselves organized, get the structure we wanted and get the chemistry with all the boys. At the end of the day we are happy the way the season ended , as far as leaving it off on the right foot. But, we are obviously disappointed to not make the playoffs.
Covering Riverside soccer has been about much more than the Coras. It’s about getting in touch with grassroots soccer, soccer that is played for the love of the game. My involvement started with a simple DM, that led to an interview with President Robert and next thing you know I was working on my first article (Why we love our club). The interview with Robert was pretty simple; he asked the basic questions and by the end of the phone call we were just talking tactics. I joined lower-league soccer just to meet soccer people and within one week I had met the President, Coach, Manager and tons of players. I’ve had more soccer conversations in the past few months than my entire life and that has helped with just continuing to learn the game.
On the media side, Salvador ( Social Media Admin) and I have talked media strategies and different ways to engage our community. We partnered our social media and writing to really try to create a full digital experience. We created hashtags and match posters. We both showed up for soccer and found a whole new passion for the game.
Nothing caps off a season quite like a Coras Season XI ( my opinion). While I only listed eleven players, there were many that contributed to the success of Riverside. Soccer is a team sport and it took the Coras more than just eleven players to finish the season
GK: Alonso Lara– Lara started in goal for majority of the season. While he had a few howlers towards the end of the season, he remained a leader and helped instruct the backline throughout the year.
RB: Jimmy Ross– Dragged around multiple positions, jimmy thrived playing RB. He is defensively strong, can transition the attack quickly and offers a killer cross.
CB: Jose Perez / Fernando Cabello– a physical duo that limits direct play. Both players played majority of the season together gaining chemistry and an understanding of each others play.
LB: Yosimar Hernandez– Best wingback in NPSL.
CDM: Shane Shelton– Shane plays best with more players in front of him. Sitting in front of the back four allows him to shore up the defense and act as that single pivot in the midfield, changing direction and searching for that direct diagonal ball.
CM: Hugo Gutierrez– Hugo is the engine. His ability to cover ground is second to none and makes the Coras press click. His constant chasing tends to force opponents to pass quickly often causing turnovers.
CM: Eric Gonzalez– Eric’s versatility helps mirror both Shane and Hugo, on top of being able to work the ball through the middle of the pitch.
LW: Alex Zaragoza– Alex is versatile winger who can play both in defense and attack. Alex likes to dribble in space and partner with his wingback. We didn’t get to see Alex and Yoshi together as much as I would have liked, but they complimented each other very well.
ST: Romario Lomeli– While he may not have had the most goals for Coras, it was his off the ball movement that helped him shine up top. Romi has shown to have the ability to drive down the field and take on opponents. Romi can drop into the midfield to receive the ball, allowing for the winger to shift up top. Lomeli can operate anywhere in the attacking third which also helps on the counter.
RW: Kevin Huezo– A professional player and our top scorer. Normally Kevin is lined up as Riverside’s striker and looks to have a quick shot when given space. Coming off the wing and shifting over allows Huezo receive the ball in the box or as a trailing attacker. The system allows him to roam and hunt for goals.
In a season you’ll have your ups-and-downs, but this season was a re-branding season for us. We had a bunch of the older players, from the years prior, [missing.] We had to get new players and break them into the league. I think we got the experience we needed from this year, of course we didn’t get the results that we wanted, but we are looking forward to next season. We are going to have to work even harder now.
I’ve been told that majority of these players will be returning to Riverside next year. With continued development we will see Riverside back in the playoff standings, looking to make it to the U.S. Open Cup. At the end of it all Riverside traveled 1,300 miles, rostered 37 players, hosted 9 home matches and did it for one city.