The Ventura County Fusion celebrate with their fans after defeating Cal FC in penalty kicks 6-5. Photo: Ventura County Fusion
No other amateur team, much less Premier Development League team had won a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match in four straight seasons.
No US Amateur Soccer Association club had made as many headlines, in recent years, as Cal FC.
So when these two teams faced each other in the first round of the US Open Cup Wednesday night at the Ventura College Sportsplex, there was the potential for a memorable Ventura County derby.
The result was delightful madness.
Three times in regulation and five more times during the decisive penalty kick shootout, host Ventura County took the lead only to be pegged back by Cal FC.
It wasn’t until, after 120 minutes and 16 penalty kicks, when Edgar Espinoza couldn’t answer Matt Sheldon’s spot kick in the third round of sudden death, that the Fusion survived 6-5 on PKs after a 3-3 draw.
Espinoza had forced extra time in the first place with a 25-yard rocket in second half stoppage time, spoiling a 3-2 Fusion lead.
“These are the type of games that you have to find a way to win,” Fusion coach Rudy Ybarra said. “It’s a cup game with all the excitement, the fans are fantastic and you’re saying to yourself,
‘Man, how are we going to win this game?’ Because every time we went ahead, they came back.”
Ventura County, now the first amateur team to advance in the Open Cup in five straight years, will visit the Los Angeles Galaxy II (USL) in Wednesday’s second round.
Cal FC, after its memorable run to the Fourth Round in 2012, which included an upset of the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, miss out on a chance at a rematch with Los Dos, the team that eliminated them 6-1 in last year’s second round.
But with former star Danny Barrera back in the No. 10 role, Cal FC flashed some of its former giant-killing verve.
The Thousand Oaks-based adult club, which now plays in the Adult Soccer League of Simi Valley, should have taken a 2-0 lead within 10 minutes. But Jhonny Bravo missed a sitter and Justin Vom Steeg, the Fusion’s 17-year-old UC Santa Barbara-bound goalkeeper, made a huge one-on-one save.
The Fusion’s reply was swift and sharp. Former Louisville attacker Michael Roman drove a diagonal ball that Carlos Martinez tucked inside the far post in the 14th minute.
Barrera answered in the 30th minute, turning in space and curling home a 25-yard beauty to tie the match at 1-1.
“Unbelievable goal,” Cal FC coach Ross Greaney said. “He’s a great leader… Both teams had a lot of very good attacking players on display.”
Javier Castro took down Michael Mercado’s cross and patiently finished in the 39th minute to give the Fusion a 2-1 halftime lead and the home team pushed for more before the break.
“We had to fix some stuff at halftime because they were all over use towards the end of the first half,” Greaney said. “It was an open game, which I think we wanted. They are training every day. We wanted a little bit of chaos, so our maturity could help.”
Cal FC capitalized on the chaos to make it 2-2 in the 51st minute, when fullback Chris Cummings finished a rampaging 30-yard run with a blast that Vom Steeg failed to punch over the bar.
About 12 minutes later, the Fusion put on substitute Julian Zamora to change the game and he obliged, heading the Fusion into a 3-2 lead with his first touch of the season.
Just when it looked like the Fusion would see out its lead, Espinoza let rip and forced extra time.
But not before Cal FC substitute Johnny Lopez nearly ended it with the last kick of regulation, forcing a point blank save from Vom Steeg.
Lopez also had a goal disallowed in the first half of extra time.
“We didn’t give up,” Lopez said. “That was the thing…. It was a good game. We gave it our all.”
Ventura County hung on for PKs and prevailed, despite two saves by Cal FC goalkeeper Bryan Hill, who was between the sticks when the Fusion won the PDL championship in 2009.
Two other members of that PDL championship team, Barrera and defender Dylan Riley, also converted PKs for Cal FC in the shootout against their former club.
“It was a wild game,” Hill said. “Give credit to both sides for being able to stick to their game plan, execute and put the effort in. At the end of the day, it was anybody’s ballgame, as we saw.