AZUSA, Calif. -- It wasn't the result either team desired, but Tuesday's entertaining 1-1 draw between the Golden State Athletic Conference's top two teams kept both Concordia and Azusa Pacific alive while bringing two other teams into the equation for the conference title heading into the final round of conference action this weekend.
Concordia, ranked No. 8 in the NAIA and still sitting atop the GSAC standings after Tuesday's contest with 19 points (6-1-1 conference record), struck first, taking a 1-0 lead in the first half by taking advantage of a defensive breakdown that left Edgar Orozco with an open chance from the middle of the box. Orozco put the chance away with a right-footed strike to the far post.
That lead held up until halftime and lasted just over 10 minutes into the second half, when junior midfielder Trenton Titus redirected a Michael Sahagian free kick from outside the left corner of the box with a close-range header squeezed just inside the near post past Concordia goalkeeper William Whiddon to tie the game at 1-1. The goal was the first of the year for Titus, who leads the team in assists on the season with five.
“I was just waiting for it, backpedaling, and I was a little worried I might have been offsides,” Titus said, “but I looked over after it went in and saw that I was onside. I headed it down as hard as I could, and it snuck in.”
Although the teams combined for 39 shots, with a nearly-even 20-19 split in favor of Azusa Pacific, which entered the game ranked No. 11 in the NAIA and dropped from second place to third in the GSAC with 17 points (5-1-2 GSAC record). The Cougars fell behind Vanguard (6-2 GSAC), a 3-2 winner over San Diego Christian Tuesday afternoon, and Fresno Pacific (6-2 GSAC), which edged Westmont at home Tuesday night, 1-0.
“We knew it was going to be tightly contested and back-and-forth, so it was everything we expected,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “In the end, we had chances to win it and just didn’t get one against a very good team. When you have No. 1 play No. 2 (in the conference), you hope to have this type of game, and both teams had their chances today.”
Junior goalkeeper Joe Geletko made several key saves that kept Azusa Pacific alive, finishing with six stops on the day. One of those came in the 35th minute, a diving stop of a 10-yard strike from David Garcia in the box. Geletko dove right to protect the far post but was able to get his foot in the way for the kick-save when Garcia tried to tuck it inside the near post, and the defense cleared the ball from danger to keep Concordia from adding to the one-goal margin.
“The goal that went in (for Concordia) came from a guy at the six (-yard box), so there’s not much you can do about that,” Blomquist said. “Every other save that Joe had to make, he made.”
Geletko’s reflexes also kept it a one-goal game in the 54th minute, when Jose Tamayo capped a four-shot flurry in a span of less than a minute with a perfect 26-yard strike tucked just underneath the crossbar. However, Geletko tipped it away at the last second, and the ensuing corner kick failed to generate another shot before the Cougars countered with Titus’ equalizer just two minutes later.
In the 44th minute, junior defender John Tribbey created one of the best chances of the half, sending in a cross from the left touch line that deflected off an Eagles defender and rolled across the face of the goal a yard in front of the goal line but stayed in play and was eventually cleared from danger. Tribbey later set up three quality chances, any of which could have represented the game-winner – at the 73-minute mark, his corner kick was headed about a foot over the bar by senior defender Lucas Young, a left-footed cross to Garcia-Partida in the box for a 12-yard header one-hopped Whiddon before it was saved in the 80th minute, and his 87th-minute corner kick was headed by Young off the left post.
Just minutes into the second half, senior forward Nathan Nienhuis led Carlos Garcia-Partida towards the box on a breakaway behind the Eagles defense, and Garcia-Partida’s low shot at Whiddon was stopped and eventually covered before any other attacker could get to it for another shot attempt. With just 90 seconds left in regulation, a Sahagian cross set up Nienhuis for a 14-yard chance in the box that was deflected into the air by a defender before Whiddon came down with the last of his five saves.
Concordia held the Cougars without a shot in the first 10-minute overtime period. Sahagian took Azusa Pacific’s only shot of the second overtime, a shot that sailed several yards over the goal in the 105th minute. None of Concordia’s three shots in overtime were on goal.
“Winning the conference championship is something we strive for every year, so we’re disappointed with not getting the three points today that would have put the title in our hands Saturday,” Blomquist said. “It’s a bit disappointing because we work hard all season to win it, but our focus remains on how we play. I thought the guys performed really well today, so I’m very pleased with that.”
The Cougars wrap up the regular season Saturday, needing a victory in a 2:30 p.m. visit to Hope International to stay alive for the conference regular-season championship. Concordia hosts Fresno Pacific for a chance to clinch the title outright, but Fresno Pacific could stake its GSAC title claim with a win in that contest. A draw or Fresno Pacific victory would open the door for Vanguard, which visits Biola Friday night, to sneak off with at least a share of its second consecutive GSAC regular-season title.
The only way Azusa Pacific finishes atop the GSAC standings would be if Concordia and Fresno Pacific tie and Vanguard either ties or loses to Biola Friday night. In that scenario, Azusa Pacific and Concordia would be co-champions, with the league’s tiebreaker rules determining the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage that accompanies it during the upcoming GSAC Postseason Tournament.