PASADENA — Forty minutes of grinding away with visiting Crescenta Valley High had the Pasadena boys' soccer team believing it could hang with the two-time defending Pacific League champion.
But, as tough a challenge as the Bulldogs proved to be, it only took 10 seconds of the second half of Friday afternoon's league tilt for the Falcons to rediscover their own confidence and turn the tide.
Pavle Atanackovic scored on an assist from Erick Trejo just a few ticks into the second half to tie the match, giving the Falcons a momentum swing that carried over for the next 30 minutes. During that span they also got a 66th minute goal by Pablo Sotillo that stood as the difference in a 2-1 win that gave Crescenta Valley (7-0-6, 3-0-2 in league) sole possession of first place in league.
"In the first half, we put a little too much pressure on ourselves. In the second half, we tried to come out a bit more patient and move the ball around the midfield and let our skill take over instead of just trying to force it," Falcons Coach Grant Clark said. "[Scoring immediately in the second half] was great because, all of a sudden, you go from down, 1-0, to an even [match] and you basically have a whole half to get another goal. That sure helped calm the nerves."
From Atanackovic's penalty kick that was blocked in the 13th minute to the Falcons' defensive breakdown that led to a breakaway goal on a deflection and a 1-0 Bulldogs lead in the 25th minute, Crescenta Valley didn't match Pasadena's intensity over the first 40 minutes.
Pasadena (6-3-3, 3-1-1) began the second half with the ball, but quickly lost it in its own backfield to the fleet feet of Trejo, who quickly redirected the ball to a charging Atanackovic. The reigning All-Area Boys' Soccer Player of the Year dribbled another 10 yards toward the goal, stopped on a dime and fired a low right-foot shot into the left corner of the net from 25 yards out.
"In the first half, they came out with great intensity, they were yelling around the field," Atanackovic said of the Bulldogs. "We kind of came out slow and kind of down. The second half, we came out stronger. We realized this was for first place in league and we just had to get a 'W' today."
Fired up, the Falcons continued to mount the kind of pressure on the Bulldogs' goal that was mostly lacking in the first half. Atanackovic headed a ball backward into the goal just moments after his score, but it was waved off on an offside whistle, one of five such calls that went against the more aggressive Falcons in the second half.
In all, the Falcons got seven second-half shots off to the Bulldogs' three, including Sotillo's tally, which was set up by some precision passing in the attacking third.
Alex Berger played a ball up from midfield to Atanackovic on the threshold of the penalty box. Atanackovic juggled the ball amid a convergence of Pasadena defenders, then popped the ball up to Sotillo, who made the shot despite a tough angle from near the end line.
"Pablo made a great run on the right side," Atanackovic said. "I saw him and he finished it perfectly."
Michael Shahnazarians went wide right by inches on a bullet from 30 yards out in the 68th minute, but despite several good chances for Pasadena in the final 10 minutes, Crescenta Valley wouldn't need any more scoring to seal the win.
Falcons goalkeeper Nick Ruiz made a spectacular leaping save on a header attempt, going airborne and deflecting the ball up and over the goal with one hand in the 75th minute. Less than a minute later, Atanackovic made a header save on a low slicing shot inside the penalty box.