Everyone knows the time of year. Every person involved in sports seems to live for it. However, when playoff time comes along, most teams are already at home watching like the rest of the fans around the country. For some teams, the prospect of the ultimate prize of winning a championship remains. This season, San Antonio FC is one of those teams – and they have earned the right to enter the USL Championship playoffs at home in front of what they consider the best fans in the league.
The journey to this point was an unusual one to say the least. New head coach Alen Marcina took over in December and assembled an exceptionally talented roster of veterans with championship and winning experience to go along with young players with a lot of potential, including many from the SAFC Pro Academy. After a long training camp and preseason, the staff and players bought in to the new team culture and were excited for the season to start. A 1-0 win over the reigning league champions – Real Monarchs SLC – at home on March 7 to kick-off the season was a hell of a first impression and seemed like it was going to pave the way going forward in 2020.
Before they could travel to Colorado Springs for their second match of the season, COVID-19 came. The league suspended play for an initial period of 30 days, and quarantine began. The 30 days turned into four months, and the season as we usually know it was long gone.
“It’s one of those seasons that we are all going to remember in our lives,” said SAFC defender Joshua Yaro. “Finding ways to stay fit and stay ready for when the season resumed was tough.”
‘Tough’ probably doesn’t do it justice, however SAFC adapted in the best ways they could. Arguably no other team in the USL was as dedicated and focused during the midst of the pandemic quarantine. Daily zoom training sessions, culture building meetings, one-on-one development, and at home workouts were just pieces of what the squad was working on during the hiatus. Without knowing exactly when soccer would return – or even when the players could return to the training pitch – they had to focus on a ‘one day at a time’ mentality.
Eventually, soccer would return and SAFC would return to the training ground as if they didn’t miss a beat. Players who had been dealing with injuries got healthy, the culture was set, and the club was prepared to make a run to the playoffs with a 16-game season looking back at them. Things were definitely going to be different. From playing a small amount of opponents multiple times – which SAFC defender Hunter Gorskie mentioned was one of the most difficult parts to the season – to having to bus to most road trips. SAFC knew from the jump that they would need to adjust to the new normal.
“Honestly its much harder than a regular normal season,” said Yaro. You’re bussing a lot more to games, and more challenges are thrown at you that you have to adapt to. There are a lot more challenges than a normal season. You may play a lot more games in a normal season, but this season has felt longer. I think it’s a lot more challenging to win and stay focused in this environment when compared to any other year.”
Despite the challenges, SAFC would run rampant. The club finished at the top of its Group D standings on 33 points after compiling a 10-3-3 record during the season. In addition, SAFC was unbeaten at home (7-0-1) and started the season on an 11-match unbeaten streak. Because their point total surpasses anyone in groups C or D, SAFC will host at least two playoff matches at Toyota Field should they advance. Luis Solignac led SAFC with eight goals and San Antonio native Matthew Cardone kept four clean sheets between the pipes.
Obviously, the team had high expectations and set a number of goals leading into the season, and Marcina thinks its important to acknowledge the success after the 16-game campaign.
“We have to recognize the great work the team has done,” he said. “Going undefeated at home was one of our objectives. Finishing first in our group – a competitive group – was something we did very well. We finished among the league’s leaders, and when you combine all the groups together, we were one win away from tying for first.”
But now, the mentality shifts. Its playoff time and the team knows that one loss isn’t just dropping points anymore – it means going home.
“I think the team is ready despite our last result,” said Yaro. “This is what the team has been preparing for. Everyone is ready to go, and we are excited about playing in front of our home fans and making a run at it.”
“From day one it was always about relentless preparation and doing everything we can to prepare for our opponent,” added Marcina. “The difference is its playoff mode. If you win you progress, if you lose, you’re done. So, there’s a slight shift in mentality, but the preparation remains the same.”
Standing in the way of playoff progress for SAFC is a talented New Mexico United team that finished runner up in Group C. One thing that goes unnoticed – New Mexico essentially played 15 road matches this year after being unable to host games due to state laws regarding COVID-19.
SAFC has always been hard to beat at home, going 41-10-22 all-time at Toyota Field with a +52 goal differential. New Mexico will be less fazed than most teams about playing on the road in the first round after the unique season they just endured, but SAFC players know how key playing at home is in front of the fans that seem to always make a difference.
“I’m really excited about this playoff prospect because we are at home,” Yaro said. “We have a really strong home record, and when you play in front of the fans we have and the atmosphere they create, it’s a great recipe to overcome New Mexico.”
“We are undefeated at home and we want to continue to be undefeated at home,” said Gorskie. “People have to come here and play against us and no one wants to do that.”
Although the club is focused on this weekend in New Mexico, its no secret that the goal is to finish as the last team standing. Everyone signed on knowing that to be the case. The players have plenty of championship experience and Marcina has already brought a title to San Antonio with the now-defunct Scorpions in 2014. Playing without fans for the majority of the season, only playing 16 games, playing limited opponents multiple times have all been reasons to make 2020 different, but none of them change what a championship would mean to the club.
“[Winning a championship] means the exact same thing,” said Gorskie. “At the end of the day will 35-plus teams and we all know we are playing for a championship and only one team can win it. I don’t care how many games it is; I want to win.”
“It would mean a lot [to win], added Yaro. “It would be the first time this club has done that. We would be remembered as the first, however I don’t think if we win this year that it would be the last time this club wins a championship. That would mean a lot to me to give this club and city a trophy as players and as an organization.”
The players, coaches and staff have a winning mentality and are ready to go earn everything on the field starting this Saturday in New Mexico. Championship aspirations are great, but you need to put in the work to get there, and that’s something this club has done and is continuing to do as the first round approaches. The mentality might shift, but the preparation remains the same as the club has done since training camp started in January.
“We have achieved some great milestones and objectives, but we feel we are not done yet,” said Marcina. “We have to put our best foot forward against New Mexico, who are a very good team, and hopefully we are able to progress.”
The time is now. The club is ready. SAFC will look to capitalize on a strong season with a deep playoff run, and it all starts Saturday at Toyota Field.
“I’m as ready as ever,” Gorskie concluded. “This is what you wait for all season long. One step at a time, and the day is upon us so now we just need to take care of business.”