The UC Merced men’s soccer team’s defense has been a bright spot to open the season.
The Bobcats produced just one shutout last season but entered Monday afternoon’s home tilt with Hope International riding a school-record 270-minute scoreless streak.
Coach Albert Martins’ squad tacked on another 81 minutes before finally yielding. Whether it was the 100-degree heat, the four games in nine days or the Royals’ extreme possession advantage, Hope International finally broke down the Bobcats in the 82nd minute, paving the way for Shahram Aghayousef’s winner in a 2-1 overtime victory.
“We played an immature game this afternoon,” Martins said. “We got caught up playing the kind of game they wanted, a track-meet, counter-attack game, instead of knocking the ball around and getting it wide like we want.
“We didn’t possess the ball like we’re capable of, and I think that was a case of fatigued legs. We tried to rotate a number of bodies through and just couldn’t get anything going.”
After outscoring its first three opponents 8-0, UCM (3-1) knew it was in for its toughest match to date. Still, it was the Bobcats getting out on their front foot in the fourth minute, pouncing on a defensive miscue by the Royals.
Hope International (4-2-1) allowed a long free kick to bounce in its 18-yard box. UCM left wing David Esparza never stopped running, tracked down the loose ball and forced a sliding save from goalkeeper Manuel Madrigal. The rebound bounced right to striker Kevin Quintanilla, who drilled it into the vacated net.
The Royals didn’t let the early goal get them down, responding right back with excellent one- and two-touch buildup in the midfield. Hope International outshot UC Merced 23-12 the rest of the way but didn’t get a shot on frame until it drew a penalty late in the first half.
Bobcat goalkeeper Heriberto Diaz (six saves) was up to the challenge, turning away Sean Toth’s spot kick with a diving save that preserved Merced’s lead going into intermission.
It was a brief reprieve, however.
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The Fullerton school continued to produce opportunities and finally equalized in the 82nd minute with a brilliant combination of passes along the right wing. Raul Pinon eventually was set up on the right side of the box. Diaz turned away his first effort, but the rebound caromed back to Pinon and he made no mistake the second time.
“This was the first team we played that really used their wings that wide on the field, and I think we didn’t know how to play against it,” UCM center back Andy Galvan said. “They’re the first team we played that’s actually pressured the ball more than we pressure the ball, and we didn’t handle it well.”
Pinon was in the thick of the game-winner, too, beating his man for a loose ball on the right wing and then feathering the ball back to the top of the box. Aghayousef one-timed the ball from about 23 yards out, beating Diaz with a low shot to the corner for the sudden-death winner.