Vela's kick brings Phoenix a victory
It wasn't the first time Alex Vela had launched a beautiful, arcing shot into the corner of a soccer goal.
But never had the Phoenix High sophomore forward had one of this magnitude.
With only 51/2 minutes remaining in regulation of a Class 4A state quarterfinal contest at U.S. Cellular Community Park Saturday, Vela settled the ball outside the box from 25 yards on the right side for a free kick. The Pirates were in a 1-1 deadlock with perennial power La Salle Prep, and scoring opportunities were scarce.
After a delay as a yellow card on a Falcons player was sorted out, Vela stepped in and slammed the ball with his left foot, curling it around the inside post over a mangle of bodies and below the crossbar, giving the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
It held up for their 11th straight victory and sends top-ranked Phoenix (13-3-1) into the semifinals Tuesday, when it will host defending champion Stayton. The Eagles (16-1) downed Ontario, 3-0.
"I've made shots like that," said Vela, "but not in this type of situation. I was really nervous because apparently everybody was yelling at me. 'First post, second post.' I didn't know which side to go."
He elected the near post and, though he thought the shot favored the middle, "it still went through," he said.
It was the Pirates' first score in what seemed an eternity. They were on the board with a La Salle own goal just 6:44 into the contest, then withstood a tying penalty kick by the Falcons' Matthew Paine in the 45th minute and inspired play by the visitors from then on.
It was a matchup of playoff regulars.
La Salle, a private Portland-area school, has made it to state 18 of the last 19 years — the exception being last season. It won its fifth title in that stretch in 2009.
In the same period, Phoenix has been 14 times, its best finish a runner-up in 1997.
Despite that, the two have met surprisingly few times, and Pirates coach Dennis Flenner, in his 17th year, was looking forward to a chance for his first victory over La Salle in the schools' first playoff meeting since 1999. In that one, the Falcons rolled to a 6-1 semifinal win.
"Today I did get some of the hair of the dog that bit me," he grinned.
And it was Vela whose bark was loudest, with a little help from a friend, senior midfielder Luis Hernandez.
"He told me to shoot first (post)," said Vela. "He was going to try to block the goalie. All he did was stand right in front of him so he wouldn't see the ball. He jumped right when the ball was coming, then ducked his head and let it go in."
La Salle (11-4-2) didn't mount a threat in the final minutes.
Falcons coach Joe Frimpong wondered if the delay preceding the shot affected his team.
La Salle's Adrien Baures received one of four yellow cards — two on each team — after fouling Vela. Officials took several minutes to explain the call, then play resumed.
"Honestly, my sense was the game was stopped so long by the referee that you lose composure," said Frimpong. "By the time the whistle blew, I don't think the defense was set right. But all the years I've been in this sport, I've never given an excuse for losing. The better team won, they move on, they beat us fair and square. The second goal was a good-looking goal, so I want to wish them the best."
Phoenix had the upper hand throughout the first half, thanks to the own goal.
The Pirates' Jesus DeLaCruz had rifled a shot at the goal, and Vela was there to try to convert. But goalie Dylan Tran took down Vela with a slide tackle, and the ball squirted past them and off an unwitting Nico Marquez-Stock.
"He turned around and the ball just hit him," said Frimpong. "That set us back right away, but it happens."
With the lead, Phoenix dropped top offensive threat Omar Iboa from forward to defense in a "midfield management type of game," said Flenner.
It worked fine until La Salle knotted the score on Paine's PK.
Paine had been elbowed in the back, Iboa said, repeating an officials explanation, and used a big left foot to power a shot from straightaway past helpless Pirate keeper Roberto Cook.
The game's defensive bent continued until Iboa returned to forward midway through the second half.
"When we moved him back up and got the pressure going, we got the ball down in front of their goal," said Flenner, adding it was only a matter of time before an opportunity such as Vela's emerged.
"We came together as a team," said the senior Iboa. "We did good. Everybody played the way they should have. It was a good game, and they're a good team."
Another one awaits in Stayton, which defeated Phoenix in the quarterfinals last season, 2-1, at U.S. Cellular.
Phoenix is making its first semifinals appearance since 2004, when it lost to Gladstone.
"I'm confident we can win state," said Iboa, "no doubt."
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com