ATWATER — The Merced boys soccer team had the straight-forward attack on Wednesday night that head coach Bart McAfee has been waiting for.
Two days after slowly building its offensive play in a 1-0 loss to Buhach Colony, the Bears went forward with purpose and pace every time they touched the ball.
In a match that Merced had to win, senior striker Meng Moua spearheaded the attack, finishing with two goals and an assist in a 3-0 win over Atwater at Falcon Field.
The victory coupled with Buhach Colony's 6-1 loss to Pitman leapfrogs the Bears into a tie for second place with Atwater in the Central California Conference with two games to play.
Pitman has already locked up the league crown with 33 points. That leaves the Falcons (19 points), Bears (19) and Thunder (17) to fight it out for the last two playoff spots.
BC and Atwater both have tiebreakers over Merced, having each beaten the Bears twice.
"The kids came ready to play tonight," McAfee said. "They knew what was at stake. We needed this result.
"The bottom line is we can't have any more slip-ups. We just need to win out and control our own fate."
Atwater (12-11-1, 6-6-1 CCC) looked like a lock for second place when the week began, but the Falcons stumbled against Turlock on Monday and didn't look prepared for Merced on Wednesday night.
The Bears (18-7-1, 6-6-1 CCC) were on their front foot from the opening whistle, producing seven shots in the first 14 minutes.
The seventh shot produced the early goal that has eluded Merced for most of league play. Jay Bounlangsy's long throw-in glanced off of a couple players in the 18-yard box and found its way to Moua, who headed it home.
Despite Merced's dominance, the score remained 1-0 at intermission.
Atwater showed some signs of life with two dangerous chances in the last five minutes of the half.
The Falcons never found their legs, however.
Moua made it 2-0 in the 53rd minute, when he was played through on a perfectly weighted ball from Cesar Moreno.
"That's how we have to play every time out," Moua said. "It's partly my fault for not pushing it more earlier in league.
"I knew I had some making up to do for my team, but I'm finally back in it."
Moua missed out on his hat trick, as shots struck the right post and the crossbar. The second of those two fell to the feet of Francisco Rodriguez, who buried the rebound to put the game away in the 61st minute.
Jon Carlo Tomayo made two saves for Merced to earn the shutout.
"We didn't do anything right tonight," Atwater coach Jimmy Brewer said. "No energy. No focus.
"We aren't playing like a team that wants to lock up a playoff spot on its own. It's probably going to come down to the last game of the season."