In past years, before the Long Beach Unified School District upgraded most of the city’s high school soccer fields to artificial turf, Moore League soccer matches were often muddy, messy grudge matches. Since the passage of the bond that allowed the upgrades, most soccer games are now technical and beautiful, with ball movement and precise passing.
Thursday’s league opener between reigning league champion Millikan and Long Beach Poly was an old-school affair, played on an old-school grass field in old-school mud. The Rams came up with the last-minute magic to start their title defense on a positive note, defeating the Jackrabbits 2-1.
“I tried to take a little pressure off our team,” said Millikan coach Tino Nunez, whose team is seeking back-to-back league titles for the first time since 1985-86. “I told them, ‘You aren’t winning or losing the Moore League title today.’ But what better way to start than with a win over a team like that, who you know is going to be in it at the end.”
‘At the end’ was a phrase Rams fans enjoyed, since that’s when their team was at its best. Millikan outshot Poly 9-3 in the first half, but didn’t have too much bite on their chances. The host Rams took a lead in the 52nd minute after sophomore Danielle Paulson was taken down in the box to earn a penalty kick, then Azalia Salazar calmly buried the PK.
Poly equalized just seven minutes later after a foul and a yellow card gave the Jackrabbits a free kick just outside the Rams box. Senior Morgan King was perfect on the attempt, dropping it in just under the crossbar to tie the game 1-1.
The Jackrabbits dominated the second half in terms of scoring opportunities, earning dangerous free kicks and four corners, resulting in 10 shots to the Rams’ four. But Poly never broke through, and the Rams would in the final minute of the game.
Junior Alyssa Reyes had a few tries in the first half, and was confident she’d find herself with the ball again when it counted.
“Just my mentality was, I knew I had to put one away,” said Reyes. “I just told myself to keep going, I had to do it for my team.”
Sure enough, after a mis-clear by the Poly defense, the ball was at her feet, and she buried the game-winner.
“It was a little bit of a relief,” said Nunez. “We were up against the ropes. I thought we did a great job of surviving their size and strength, and we have a couple of dangerous players up front who made a difference.”
Both coaches agreed that the muddy field made a big difference in the game, although they obviously had different opinions of whether that was a good thing or not.
“This field benefits us,” said Nunez. “When you can slow down a team like that, where there’s really athletic players, that helps us, of course.”
Poly coach Anthony Perez was blunt in his assessment.
“I think we got beat by a field,” he said. “I told the girls before the game, we can’t play the way we play on this field. If we play this on a turf field it’s a totally different game. It helped them, no doubt.”
The Jackrabbits have lost four of their last five games against Millikan, and drawn the other.