The boys' soccer playoffs have never been known for their predictability, but this is ridiculous. Of the 10 teams ranked in The Times Orange County final regular-season poll, only fourth-ranked Santa Margarita has reached the semifinals. Plenty of county teams are still playing; seven of 16 semifinalists in the top four divisions are county teams. But three of the seven--Sonora, El Toro and Sunny Hills--were longshots to make the second round.
There is no simple explanation for the rash of upsets, but a combination of factors: El Nino, stingy defenses and luck.
The pounding rains of the past month have turned most soccer fields into a sloppy mess. The muddy fields make for ugly games and minimize the talented teams' ability to use their skills.
The treacherous field conditions are playing right into the hands of defensive-minded teams who don't play a skill game. Long Beach Millikan packed it in with five midfielders and four defenders against Saddleback, the highest scoring team in the county and the top-seeded team in Division I, and held the Roadrunners to one goal, then won on penalty kicks.
Second-seeded Capistrano Valley (Division I) and fourth-seeded Woodbridge (Division I) are high-scoring teams, but they also had trouble scoring and were knocked out in 1-0 games.
On the other hand, El Toro and Foothill have been winning low-scoring games by concentrating on defense. El Toro lost seven of its first eight and qualified for the Division I playoffs by winning its final regular-season game. The Chargers have upset four division champions by giving up only two goals in four games.
"Teams are playing well and getting upset," El Toro Coach Ken Sjobom said. "No matter how good you are, you have to put the ball in the net. About halfway through the season, I told the kids, 'We're not going to score a lot of goals. We've got to have zeros.' Our strategy has been defense first and jump in when the opportunity presents itself."
Foothill Coach Barry Turner has essentially adopted the same philosophy.
"Our three strongest players are our goalkeeper [Nick Adams], our sweeper [John Rodriguez] and our stopper [Matt Ledford]," Turner said. "We don't have a good offense, but our defense is very, very strong."
Orange outshot Foothill, 19-2, in the Division II quarterfinals during regulation, but lost, 1-0. El Dorado also outshot Foothill by a large margin, but lost 1-0.
"Our goalkeeper probably had the best game of his high school career against El Dorado," Turner said. "At school, they were calling him 'the brick wall.' "
But Turner admitted Adams' brilliant saves weren't the entire story. El Dorado had shots banging off the crossbar and the posts that bounced out instead of in.
The playoffs continue today at 3 p.m. with six semifinal games involving county teams. In Division I, El Toro hosts Arcadia at Trabuco Hills (5 p.m.). In Division II, Sunny Hills is at Riverside Poly and Foothill travels to Santa Barbara San Marcos. In Division III, Santa Margarita travels to Servite and Cathedral City is at Sonora. In Division IV, Laguna Beach is at South El Monte.