LA CAÑADA — In the opening moments of the championship game of the La Cañada Boys’ Soccer Winter Tournament, La Cañada High used its high-pressure defense to take control against Simi Valley.
But after the Spartans conceded their first goal 13 minutes into the first half, the hosts lost the momentum and gave up two penalty kicks that put them into a three-goal hole.
La Cañada strung together a stronger second-half effort and scored twice to chip away at the deficit, but Simi Valley tallied one more goal late in regulation to win, 4-2, and claim the tournament championship at La Cañada on Saturday.
“Being able to come back in the second half and defeating them in the second half shows that we moved a step closer into what we were looking for,” La Cañada coach Bruno Costa said. “Of course, nobody likes to lose and you want to win your home tournament. We want to win against the big schools, but you have to take and learn.
“I see this as more of a learning experience and a great one because it gave me a lot of material that I’m going to work with in the following weeks.”
The Spartans opened the match with opportunities coming from three corner kicks. But in the 13th minute, a Pioneers corner stretched to the opposite end of the penalty box that found midfielder Anthony Burlingham, who laid a header off to senior forward Tony Reyes for the opening goal.
From there, a mistimed tackle and a handball foul gave Simi Valley (9-0) two penalty chances in the 23rd and 37th minute, both of which were tucked into the bottom right corner of the net by Pioneers senior Jake Means that gave the visitors a 3-0 lead.
“We knew they would be up for the game,” Simi Valley coach Ryan Woods said. “We knew they would come out fast. They tried to see if they could get us early, but my defense is a bunch of seniors. They’re used to it. ... We knew we would be able to weather that and then once we got into the game, it’s our way.
“We just grind you down. We’ll continue to pressurize you. We’ve got good enough guys in the attacking third that, sooner or later, you’re going to break down and we’re going to get our goals.”
Though La Cañada (5-2-2) started the second half in a similar frantic manner that it had in the closing minutes of the first, 40 minutes. The Spartans got on board in the 55th minute from a midfield clearance from defender Luke Hong. With his back against the goal, the junior center-back made it a 3-1 score after he launched the ball about 50 yards out. The ball sank into the back of the net as Simi Valley goalkeeper Alex Schechter was caught off his line.
With newfound life, La Cañada scored again as sophomore midfielder Tyler Na-Nakornpanom broke away from midfield to slide a through pass to senior captain J.P. Crispi, who slotted it home in the corner of the net as the Spartans pulled within 3-2 in the 65th minute.
“At halftime, coach told us we were playing awful and told us to get our minds back into game to continue with our goal of winning the it,” Crispi said. “It wasn’t successful, but we tried our best.
“I feel like after the second goal, we kind of shut down for a little bit, and that led to the third goal being the penalty. I feel like we shut down in the first half and it drew us out of the game.”
With momentum on their side, the Spartans threatened off of three free-kicks in the final 15 minutes, but a short corner clearance gave the Pioneers a chance to counter in the 79th minute. Reyes found a cross from the right wing and finished it with a header for the final goal of the championship game.
“We lacked a little bit of maturity,” Costa said. “We’re not mature enough to deal with a high level of competition because this is one of the best schools in the area, the state and the country. These are the games that makes us better.
“I think we got exposed to a few of the things that we need to improve, mostly on the psychological side, and I really believe the effect of having a really poor first half.