Benefield: Sonoma County Sol soccer players thrive on competitiveness

Chris Daly, second from left, passes the ball as opposing players (from left to right) Noah Paravicini, Juan Carlos Hernandez and Nico Spann pressure him during Sonoma County Sol's practice held at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma, Thursday, March 19, 2015.  (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Chris Daly, second from left, passes the ball as opposing players (from left to right) Noah Paravicini, Juan Carlos Hernandez and Nico Spann pressure him during Sonoma County Sol’s practice held at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma, Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Nico Spann was pissed.

His team was pulled from the field. It was winners stay on, losers off.

So the normally affable Spann, who played his prep soccer at Montgomery before playing for Sonoma State, muttered a few choice words to express his disgruntlement and started to run. He sprinted the flanks of the field and recovered on the end lines.

Nobody went with him. Coach Vinnie Cortezzo didn’t demand it. But Spann wanted to be playing so he did the next best thing he could think of — he ran.

He didn’t have to. His college soccer playing days are over, there was nothing to prove. But Spann, like his teammates, loves the game and loves playing it well.

None of the 25-plus guys out there practicing on a cold weeknight in Petaluma are getting perks or scholarships or swag.

In fact, these guys pay to play. Heck, they even pay to try out. Cortezzo said that policy keeps guys honest — only the real deal need show up.

But show up they do. Because this is the Sonoma County Sol — possibly the finest soccer team in the area outside of the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer or Sacramento Republic of the USL Pro league.

(See more photos from Sonoma County Sol practice)

It’s almost like an all-star team. A national championship all-star team — made up almost entirely of guys who played their high school soccer in Sonoma County and many of whom played at Sonoma State.

“Some of the best players ever to come out of Sonoma State end up playing for Sol,” Spann said.

The Sol won the National Premier Soccer League title in 2009. They have been runners-up twice, most recently in 2013. They have been Golden Gate Conference champs four times.

They go up against all-star teams from major metropolitan areas — including San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and San Jose — every weekend from January until deep into summer and usually come out on top.

“This is for sure the highest level” of soccer in the area, said Chris Daly, who prepped at Sonoma Valley High, then played at Sonoma State and started with the Sol the year after the club joined the NPSL in 2004. “We always beat Sonoma State when we play them.”

The Seawolves needn’t feel bad; the Sol beat most teams.

“The level of play you will see out here with these guys is as good or better than college soccer,” Cortezzo said.

Which makes the next part a bit of a head scratcher.

The guys out busting their tails on Tuesday and Thursday nights until 10:30 p.m. at Sol practices range from 17 to 32 years old. Some have kids. Most have jobs. A lot of them coach youth teams. The Sol isn’t all they do. It just happens to be one of the best things they do.

They are out here not because they need a ride through school. Very few of these guys have an eye on the next level, whether it’s a USL Pro team or MLS. They are out here because this is the best soccer they can find and they are incredibly good.

“Without Sol, there is not that kind of level around here to continue to play,” said Tyler Hurst, who played prep soccer at Piner High before suiting up at Santa Rosa Junior College. “The competitiveness is one of the reasons I play.”

That competitiveness shines through at trainings.

“The last thing I have to worry about with these guys is motivating them,” Cortezzo said.

Want proof?

See the reference to Spann taking extra laps.

Or keep an eye out for the jostling and jersey pulling or a bit of barking when a pass doesn’t connect or a shot flies high. They mean business.

The robust Sol practices regularly feature as many as 27 players. Game-day rosters are 18 deep. That means there are a lot of guys fighting for a spot not only in the starting lineup, but even a place on the bench. That kind of dogfight usually leads to a little jersey pulling.

“We have this huge talent pool of 30 guys,” Daly said. “They are working hard and trying to earn that spot on the roster.”

That’s just the way the Sol like it.

Saturday the Sol will be on their home field at Rancho Cotate High School against Aguiluchos of Oakland. The winner not only gets the ‘W’ but a spot in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — a massive pro tournament that stretches on for months.

Last year, Aguiluchos beat the Sol in penalty kicks for the tournament bid.

For Daly, who coaches the girls team at Petaluma High, the Sol provides a reason to keep playing the game he loves.

Sure, he can be around the game through coaching and watching his pals, but the pull of competition is still such that he’s will to stretch his days deep into night to kick it around with the Sol.

“We are extremely lucky to have this in our own backyard,” he said. “It’s long days. It’s worth it; it really is, to keep this dream alive a little bit.”

IF YOU GO

Sonoma County Sol hosts Aguiluchos of Oakland at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rancho Cotate High School.

The winner earns a spot in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

For more information and the 2015 schedule, go to www.sonomasol.com.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.