NORCO, Calif. – The Los Angeles Blues advanced to the second round of the U.S. Open Cup Tuesday by beating local rivals Hollywood United Hitmen 3-1. The match had everything for the neutral soccer fan – from crunching tackles, controversy and four ejections to breathtaking suspense and four quality goals from the run of play, one of them an absolute stunner from midfield. In the end, two tallies from debutant Mehrshad Momeni and Gerardo Bravo’s beauty in stoppage time were enough for the USL PRO side to overcome Hollywood striker Jose Miranda’ goal in the second half.
The match was a chippy affair from the get-go, as the Hitmen did a good job of pressuring their favored opponents early and posing a physical challenge. The strategy very nearly paid off in the 5th minute, as the PDL side won the ball in midfield and Rene Corona hit a perfectly timed long ball over the top that found a streaking Miranda. In all by himself, Hollywood’s leading scorer in league play should have had an easy finish but saw his attempt past onrushing goalkeeper Oscar Dautt come off the underside of the crossbar.
Just as a the Blues seemed to be settling into the game a little better, they were dealt a decisive blow, defender Leonard Griffin seeing a straight red card in the 19th minute for a sliding tackle against Hollywood’s Nick Blanco. Blanco would again be involved in the action just two minutes later, as he whipped a beautiful cross in from the left that found an open Miranda in the area. For the second time in the match, the striker missed out on the opening goal by mere inches, his close-range header whistling just past the near post.
The ten-man Blues nearly punished their opponents for the missed opportunities at the other end. Moments after Miranda’s header, Los Angeles forward Chukwudi Chijindu took it upon himself to create some offense for his side. The 25-year-old showed incredible footwork at the edge of the penalty box before laying the ball off perfectly to Momeni. The Iranian’s long-range effort with the outside of his right boot seemed destined for the upper ninety until it was tipped over in spectacular fashion by Hollywood netminder Raul Calderon.
However, Momeni’s right foot would not be denied from long distance in the 37th minute. Once again, Chijindu displayed great skill as he held the ball up on a counter-attack before threading it through to a streaking Tomislav Colic down the left flank. The Serbian cut back to his right foot and centered the ball to Josh Tudela at the top of the penalty area. After briefly surveying his options, the Blues captain laid it off to Momeni, whose cracker inside the right post had the home side’s bench erupting in joy.
Los Angeles nearly doubled the lead just before the halftime whistle. Midfielder Israel Sesay ran straight at the Hollywood backline before dribbling into the box on the left and cutting to his right foot, from where the ball sailed just wide of the far post on a wonderful curling effort.
The second half started with a huge opportunity for the visiting Hitmen that was made possible by a risky pass by Blues goalkeeper Dautt. The ball was intercepted by Brent Whitfield, who hit a dipping first-time half-volley that nearly found the back of the net, as Dautt had left his line on the play and barely managed to scramble back for a diving save.
After the Los Angeles shot-stopper showed some great positioning in the 54th minute to block a Jose Miranda effort from close range, his team would double the lead at the other end just two minutes later. Halftime substitute Edwin Miranda’s deft chip to Chijindu at the top of the box enabled the striker to lay it off to Momeni once again. As on his first tally, the 23-year-old used his magical right foot to find the back of the net from long range, this time beautifully placing the ball low and inside the near post to leave Calderon without a chance.
Still up a man, the Hitmen refused to surrender to the two-goal deficit, and they were rewarded in the 67th minute. Miranda came close yet again, his initial close-range shot being scraped off the line by a diving Dautt. However, the striker finally converted on the ensuing play, as Arturo Albarran chipped the ball back into the area and Miranda did a great job of meeting it low with his head to flick it inside the post.
The goal added an even greater sense of urgency to the Hitmen’s attacking efforts, and they came very close to equalizing on two separate occasions. First Albarran floated a nice free-kick into the area that nearly resulted in an own-goal, as Sesay headed the ball just wide of the post on a last-ditch effort to keep it from reaching a Hollywood attacker. Then Dautt made perhaps the save of the game to deny Jesus Flores in the 80th minute.
Flores was released in the area by Corona on a wonderful combination play. In all by himself, the striker seemed to have plenty of time to pick a corner but was surprised by the fantastic goalkeeping of Dautt, who sprinted off his line to deny the Honduran point-blank and preserve the lead for his side.
With the game on a razor’s edge, the emotions increasingly got the better of the two sides, with the culmination coming in the 87th minute of play. After Carlos Morales was issued a straight red card for a hard sliding challenge against the Blues’ Gerardo Bravo, almost all the players on the field got involved in a heated shoving match that resulted in two more ejections. Los Angeles’ Tudela and Hollywood’s Corona were each shown their second yellow card of the game.
With four fewer players on the pitch and Hollywood desperate to find the equalizer, spaces now opened up for the Blues whenever they won the ball defensively. In second-half stoppage time, Sesay found himself wide open down the left flank and passed the ball on to Chijindu, who laid it off to a streaking Edwin Miranda. The Salvadorian pulled the trigger from the top of the box, but Calderon did well to block the stinging drive and give his side a fighting chance.
However, the home side would deliver the knockout punch in spectacular fashion just moments later.
Dautt quickly released the ball to Gerardo Bravo, who found himself in acres of space at the halfway line with only one defender to beat and an on-side Sesay to his left. Unimpressed by the countless screams demanding he switch the ball over to his teammate, Bravo looked up and saw Calderon off his line to try and intercept a possible pass. In a moment of brilliance, the Peruvian decided to make the Hollywood goalkeeper pay and hit a perfect ball that found the net from nearly 50 yards out.
The goal sealed an emotional win for the Blues as well as the club’s participation in the U.S. Open Cup second round, which sees them traveling to take on the Ventura County Fusion this coming Tuesday, June 21.