It led to a quick Vikings goal and lead, but that was short-lived thanks to the Spartans' Armaan Zare. The junior midfielder found himself in perfect position three times Wednesday and all three led to goals in a 4-1 La Cañada victory.
It wasn't just a good day for Zare, as the Spartans rallied from a deficit – something they weren't able to do in a 2-1 loss to South Pasadena Friday – to defeat Blair on the road.
“It woke us up, focused us really good,” La Cañada Coach Alex Harrison said of Blair's early goal. “After giving up a goal that early, it's great to have a response like that. I felt like we had that killer instinct today that we need every game. We need to learn how to do that.”
The victory keeps the Spartans (16-3-1, 6-1 in league) right in the thick of the hunt for a league title. The Tigers (12-1-1, 5-0-1) led in the standings with 16 points coming into Wednesday and a road game with fourth-place Monrovia (2-2-2 in league).
Anything other than a Tigers victory would put La Cañada, which is ranked No. 1 in CIF Southern Section Division V, back in the driver's seat with three league games remaining against Temple City on Friday, San Marino on Tuesday and South Pasadena next Thursday.
Blair opened the scoring almost immediately Wednesday when a La Cañada center back attempted to head a ball away from danger at the top of his team's goal box. The ball rolled off the side of his head and bounced into the box. Linares charged to the loose ball and directed it into the low right corner of the net for a 1-0 lead in the second minute.
Vikings Coach Henry Cabral said the quick start was great for his team, but it couldn't match the goal with focus on the defensive end.
“It was a good thing, we just weren't disciplined like we needed to be,” said Cabral, whose team fell to 6-5-5, 3-3-1 in league. “They were able to capitalize on our undisciplined play and it was an ugly first half for us.”
The Spartans found an equalizer off a free kick in the sixth minute. La Cañada defender Austin Gartside took the free kick, which was set in the very middle of the field, and boomed it into the Blair's box. The ball took a bounce without any players going for the ball except Zare, who knocked it in for his first goal of the game.
Zare said the key to the easy goal was he yelled out “keeper” when the ball was in the air, which led Blair's defense to believe its goalie was going to grab the ball.
La Cañada took its first lead of the game on another lapse along Blair's last line of defense. One of the Vikings back-four players attempted to pass the ball away from danger but it went straight up in the air into his team's box. The Spartans' Armand Bagramyan positioned himself right underneath the ball before jumping and kicking it from midair into the left corner for a 2-1 advantage.
“The ball was falling their way,” Cabral said. “They were working hard, playing the right way and usually when you do that the ball will do that.”
Bagramyan was also instrumental in La Cañada's third goal, which came just two minutes later. Blair was clearly frustrated after giving up consecutive goals, evidenced by a foul it committed on Bagramyan at the top of the Vikings' box.
Bagramyan rifled the ensuing free kick off the crossbar. The shot forced Blair goalkeeper Damien Garcia to make a leaping save attempt and as he crashed to the floor the ball landed right in front of the goal line. Garcia couldn't get up and to the loose ball before Zare chipped it in for the easy score.
“I always follows those shots, no matter what,” Zare said. “You never know what's going to happen.”
Zare's most impressive goal came on the one that completed his hat trick in the 33rd minute. Garcia (seven saves) rushed out to cut off a through pass that would've led to a two-on-none La Cañada attack and attempted to boot the ball clear of the goal box.
The attempted clearance went straight to Zare, who settled the ball from about 40 yards out before lifting it over all of the defenders and into the net to cap the scoring.
“He was in great position today, the ball came right to him and he just placed it really well,” Harrison said of Zare's final goal. “I was really proud of him, he did great getting his first hat trick.”
While the Vikings broke down after taking an early lead, Cabral said he felt his squad created some positives heading into its biggest game of the year with Monrovia on Friday.
“Coming out 0-0 and having some opportunities, I think we gained a little bit of momentum to get ready for Monrovia,” Cabral said. “That game is going to decide who goes on to playoffs and who doesn't.”