Two strategic gaffes that will live forever in Orange County sporting infamy:
On Oct. 12, 1986, Gene Mauch pulled Mike Witt.
On Oct. 2, 1993, Rildo pulled Paulinho.
Oh, the championship banners that would be flapping today if these men of furrowed brow and quiet contemplation had gone with their second thought instead.
Saturday night, the Los Angeles Salsa of Fullerton was less than three minutes away from the American Professional Soccer League title. Two minutes 44 seconds, actually. A mere blink of the eye in soccer time, considering that most soccer matches are scoreless for 90 minutes of regulation play, followed by 30 minutes of scoreless "extra time," followed by the edge-of-the-seat suspense of a shootout, a concept that ought to be introduced into each match right around the 11th minute.
This night at Cal State Fullerton, however, the Salsa and the defending champion Colorado Foxes waged an offensive free-for-all.
After 87 minutes 26 seconds, it was Salsa 1, Foxes 0.
Salsa Coach Rildo couldn't believe his good fortune. It was very nearly 2-0, too, but Paulinho was ruled offside when he beat Colorado goalkeeper Mark Dodd in the 27th minute. The Cinderella Salsa--an expansion outfit that finished 12-12 in the regular season, sneaked into the playoffs and upset Vancouver in the semifinals--was dominating. In Rildo's mind, the Salsa's cushion was huge.
So, with four minutes to play, Rildo decided to sit on it.
With four minutes to play, Rildo decided to replace Paulihno, the leading scorer and MVP of the APSL, with a better defender.
"Paulinho was tired," Rildo would later explain. "I wanted more support in the midfield, so I put in somebody else.
"It was 1-0. Only four minutes left.
"But then, one mistake."
That's what Donnie Moore said.
With less than three minutes remaining, Salsa defender Lawrence Lozzano is in his own zone, dribbling the ball, going solo, trying to kill some time.
One false step, however, and Lozzano loses the ball to Colorado's Robert Lipp, who swoops in for the steal and flicks a long pass from the left side of the box to teammate Ted Eck, who is stationed and waiting, wide open, in front of the right goal post.
You can guess the rest.
Yes, it was one Eck of a goal.
At 87:27, the score was tied, and you could hear the breath whoosh out of the sellout crowd of 10,743. The fans knew exactly what this meant.
Lots of extra time.
Colorado scored in the first 15-minute extra period and again in the second. That made it 3-1, and the rout was on.
By that much, the Salsa missed the chance to hoist the APSL Championship Trophy, also known as the It's A Small World Cup.
Afterward, Dr. William De La Pena, the Salsa owner, was so livid he was shaking.
"There will be significant changes in the team before next year," he promised.
"\o7 Including \f7 the coaching staff."
Rildo stood by his call but had to admit that De La Pena was "not happy. He's the owner of the team. I don't know what he will do.
"Me, I'm very happy with this season. We made the final. What more do you want? I had the team for (only) six months."
Paulinho could not be reached for comment, having high-tailed it up the hill and, presumably, beyond city limits by the time reporters could reach the field.
Ian Feuer, the Salsa goaltender, served as spokesman for Paulinho, if only to say, "I have nothing to say, but he (Paulinho) \o7 is \f7 the MVP of the league."
And just when we thought those local roller-blading heroes, the Mighty Bullfrogs of Anaheim, had broken Orange County's chokehold in The Big Game. Instead, the summer of '93 only reconfirmed the condition.
The Bullfrogs won the championship of Roller Hockey International, but the Newport Beach Dukes blew the TeamTennis final to underdog Wichita, and now, the Salsa throws one away in the waning moments.
Take away one mixed-doubles match and three minutes of soccer, and Orange County owns the Triple Crown of Trash Sports.
But it was not to be, despite the rose petals tossed onto the Salsa's unlikely path.
The Salsa's 3-2 semifinal victory over Vancouver was a gift, say the losing 86ers, who contend Paulinho took a dive to draw a bogus foul call, setting up the free kick Paulinho drove home for the tying goal in regulation.
Then, for the final, the fourth-place Salsa was handed the home-field advantage because Colorado had no home field--two high school football teams had first dibs--and SportsChannel America was only willing to televise the match, live, on Saturday evening.
So everything played into the Salsa's hands until Rildo got his hands on Paulinho's jersey and gave it a good yank.
"All kinds of reasons go into a decision like that," said a diplomatic Rick Davis, the Salsa general manager. "Injuries, fatigue, strategy, gut instinct. A coach's career is based on those kinds of things. . . .
"We were up by a goal. Paulinho is not the best defender we've got. There are a lot of ways you can go. Do you bring in a defender? Or do you go with another attacking player, based on the thinking that the best defense is a good offense?"
Davis didn't have an answer. But as he watched the last of the nearly 11,000 soccer fans trickle out of Titan Stadium, he smiled.
"A lot of people are going to scrutinize this decision," he said, "but I say the Monday morning quarterbacks are great. The more the better. It tells me that our sport has arrived, and our organization has arrived."
Arrived at the porch, only to have the door slammed in the face. Around here it's an old story. The Salsa wasn't the first, and, no doubt, it won't be the last.