It hasn’t been the season the Pacheco High School boys soccer team anticipated.
The Panthers entered the year with genuine Western Athletic Conference and Sac-Joaquin Section title aspirations, boasting pound-for-pound the most talented starting 11 in the area. Unfortunately, that unit has rarely been able to take the pitch together since the beginning of the new year.
Injuries and a couple grade issues whittled a 20-man roster to 12 at one point in January, including San Jose State-bound midfielder Brian Nevarez. It has forced Pacheco to adapt and almost scrap the free-flowing passing game it showcased so well in December.
That long run of unfortunate luck made Cesar Martinez’s return to the lineup all the sweeter for a crucial tilt with first-place Livingston on Tuesday night. The junior winger made an instant impact, setting up Pablo Ortiz’s opening goal and then drilling home the winner in the second half as the Panthers kept their title hopes alive with a 3-1 victory over the Wolves.
Livingston (20-3-1, 9-2-1 WAC) still holds a one-point lead and controls its fate with three games to go, but Pacheco’s (14-2-4, 8-1-3 WAC) victory means it will be an exciting final week and a half.
“It says a lot about the depth of this team that we’re still in it,” Pacheco coach Wes Wing said. “To have so many guys out and to run so many different lineups out there hasn’t been easy.
“Getting Cesar back tonight was huge for us. He provided width with his pace and his skill that we haven’t had and need against a team like Livingston that wants to play so compact in the middle.”
The Wolves’ compact style dictated the opening 25 minutes.
Perhaps a little more used to playing in the elements on a natural surface, Livingston carved up the Panther midfield by putting together strings of pretty passing sequences that led to dangerous crosses.
Ricardo Garcia cashed in on that sustained pressure in the 18th minute when Enrique Medina stole a ball on the right wing and swung in a cross to the far post. The Pacheco defense missed on an attempted header, allowing Garcia to chest the ball down and pick out his spot against a helpless Jesus Lopez (four saves).
Livingston had a few more chances to build on its lead but couldn’t get anything on frame. Pacheco made it pay as Ortiz leveled the game just before halftime.
Alfonso Lopez feathered a free kick into the 18-yard box, which Martinez flicked in on net with his head. Wolves goalkeeper Marco Sobrevilla (two saves) made a diving save on Martinez’s shot but couldn’t hold the ball and Ortiz pounced on the rebound.
“It was a big boost,” Ortiz said. “Everybody got their momentum up. Everybody started playing different. Everybody got their heads up after we scored and we started playing our game.”
That game involved Martinez and Rodolfo Rivera wreaking havoc down the wings on the Pacheco counter, freeing space for Ortiz in the middle. The width they created tested the Livingston back line’s organization in the second half and helped lead to the decisive goals.
Martinez put Pacheco up for good in the 70th minute, as the Panthers ran their transition game to perfection. Luis Vargas sprung Martinez free down the right wing with a through ball, and the junior unloaded a shot just outside the 18. The ball drilled a Livingston defender in the back and caromed into the top right corner.
Ortiz put the game out of reach four minutes later, flicking a ball at midfield around his defender as he tried to close out Ortiz. That left Ortiz with one defender to beat, which he did before burying a strike just inside the far post.
“The first 20 minutes were all us,” Livingston coach Jesse Vega said. “We let them get momentum and they ran with it. I’m not sure what really changed other than Pacheco played a great game. This league, you have to come ready to play for 80 minutes or teams are going to hurt you.
“The good news is we’re still in first, but we can’t take anything for granted. It’s probably going to come down to the last day just like last year.”