SANTA CLARITA -- Fabian Sandoval has not the least doubt had his team not been hit hard by injuries down the stretch, it would be en route to Seattle for next weekend's W-League final four. And probably win the championship.
Instead, an immensely rewarding -- and seemingly surprising -- campaign in the United Soccer Leagues' women's competition ended in pain for Santa Clarita Blue Heat, which didn't quite have the manpower to overcome the Vancouver Whitecaps in Sunday night's Western Conference final at College of the Canyons.
Blue Heat (8-2-5) rallied from a two-goal deficit and enjoyed a man advantage for the final 10 minutes, but the Whitecaps (9-2-4) advanced to their second successive W-League final four in a 4-3 thriller.
Kailyn Kyle scored the winner, finishing from a goalmouth scramble in the 88th minute, her second goal of the game. UCLA star Sydney Leroux and former L.A. Sol defender Martina Franko also tallied for the Whitecaps, who will join host Seattle Sounders (5-5-4), Atlanta Silverbacks (11-1-0) and Ottawa Fury (14-0-0) next week in Tukwila, Wash.
“Expectations coming in for our coaching staff was to get to this point ...,” said Sandoval, who also is director of coaching for Santa Clarita United and a volunteer assistant with Cal State L.A.'s women's team. “I couldn't ask any more from our players with all the injuries this season. No doubt in my mind that if we had the same group that we started with, we'd be in Seattle. No doubt.
“[Vancouver is] a great team, but full squad with us, we're better than them any day of the week.”
Santa Clarita, a second-year club that won the conference regular-season title by a point over the 'Caps, was missing seven players, five of them starters, including likely conference MVP Edite Fernandes, a Portuguese national-teamer sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“She's the heart and soul. These girls know it,” Sandoval said. “I think she's the MVP of the W-League. We're lucky enough to have been able to see her play. She's that great of a player.”
Liz Franco, who played for Sandoval at Cal State L.A., gave the Blue Heat an 18th-minute lead, but Vancouver had gone ahead by halftime and extended its advantage to 3-1 on Kyle's strike two minutes into the second half.
Blue Heat quickly answered, through Hannah Beard in the 53rd minute and Shasta Fisher (Saugus/Saugus HS) in the 56th. Alexandra Marton's second yellow card in the 81st minute left the Whitecaps with 10 players, but Santa Clarita couldn't take advantage.
“Not the way I personally would want to win it, but we came back ... we picked it up, [we] gave the best performance,” said Franco, who left the game with a likely torn anterior cruciate. “The last minute, we couldn't finish. ... I wish I could've fought through [the knee injury]. It really hurts not to get back out there and help these girls fight.”
WAVES ADVANCE: Up north, the Orange County Waves advanced to the Women's Premier Soccer League final four by beating the San Diego SeaLions on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
Former UC Irvine star Tanya Taylor (Buena Park/Sunny Hills HS) scored for the Waves (12-1-3) in the fifth minute, and Ashlin Yahr pulled San Diego (12-2-2) even in the 55th.
Orange County, which won the tiebreaker, 4-1, will join the Chicago Red Stars (10-1-0), Tampa Bay Hellenic (10-2-1) and Boston Aztec Breakers Reserves (8-2-7) in next weekend's final four in Lisle, Ill.