Coming off a 2-0 road shutout win against So Cal Crush Football Club on Sunday, Santa Clarita Blue Heat Football Club is starting to mesh and take the form of the 2016 United Women’s Soccer National Championship team that won it all.
Starting the season with two ties against Real Salt Lake Women and LA Galaxy Orange County, things didn’t exactly get off on the right foot according to first-year head coach Leonardo Neveleff.
“We tied in the first two games and won the third,” Neveleff said. “Not the way we wanted to win, but sometimes at this level it’s important to go through things to win.”
Sitting in second place with 11 points in the West Conference, the SC Blue Heat (3-0-2) are just five points behind first-place Calgary Foothills.
“The team chemistry is going up with every game because the players are getting to know each other and that’s what we were looking forward to with such a short season,” Neveleff said. “With the help of all our coaches and training staff we try to maximize all the relationships on the team.”
After beating So Cal Crush 4-0 at home on June 9, Blue Heat traveled to the Crush’s home field in an early season rematch.
“We knew from the start that this game would be harder,” said midfielder Chloe Castañeda. “Both teams knew the personnel and formations that the other would start out in. But throughout the game we found our rhythm and at halftime we picked it up.”
With the score tied 0-0 coming out of the second half, Neveleff and his staff decided to switch things up, going from a 4-3-3 formation to a 3-3-4 formation with four strikers up top to see if they could catch the Crush on their heels.
It was tactic that would prove successful.
In the 85th minute, Castañeda collected a pass from Hayley Gonzales at about the 18-yard box and found the back of the net, giving Blue Heat the 1-0 lead late in the game.
“That’s her second game-winning goal of the season,” Neveleff said. “She started off as a 6 and after talking with her I moved her up as a 10 or sometimes a 9 because she plays more offensively and that’s really important for the team.”
With the late goal, Castañeda equals her goal output (2) from last year and needs two more goals to equal her career goal total (4) with the Blue Heat.
“I don’t know. I played the same position last year,” Castañeda said about her recent scoring prowess. “I’ve gotten more experience under my belt and I knew what our team needed this year.”
Up 1-0, Blue Heat was able to pad the lead after Nickolette Driesse rocketed a ball from the 30-yard line that whistled past the Crush’s goalie in the 90th minute.
“Nikki is so smart with the ball,” Neveleff said. “Every pass and shot is made with such accuracy and precision. She’s able to put the ball where ever she wants to.”
Finishing the game 2-0, the Blue Heat take the regular season series against the Crush blanking them in back-to-back games thanks to some sound defense and a brick wall with Lauren Brzykcy at goalie in between the posts.
“From the moment I saw her in practice I was blown away,” Neveleff said. “She has made so many big saves already this season that if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have come out on top.”
Compiling .850 save percentage, allowing three goals on the year Brzykcy has posted clean sheets in three of the five games played this season.
As one of the four teams that have yet to lose a game this season, five if you include the Orlando Kicks of the Southeast Provisional Conference, the Blue Heat are in no way content with second-place and know that there is still more work to do this season.
“I think we need to continue playing together and working off one another and it starts off in practice,” Driesse said. “We are all great players but it’s not going to be good enough. We all have to make sure all of the pieces are connected.”
The Blue Heat will try to take one game at a time as they face off against the third-place LA Galaxy OC this Friday at 7 p.m. at Orange County Great Park Championship Stadium.
“The first thing is the game on Friday,” Neveleff said. “They are below us but we have to go through them first.”
And then head back home Sunday to host the first-place Calgary Foothills at 6 p.m. at The Master’s University.
Looking forward to the challenge, coach Neveleff is confident that the same team that hasn’t allowed a goal in the last 180 minutes will show up to compete.
“When they come to practice they compete for their spot,” Neveleff said. “We make everything so competitive so why shouldn’t the games be the same? We have a purpose for everything we do and the sacrifice and effort of the players is second to none. I’m so grateful for their efforts.”