The gap was so glaring that Manuel Garcia-Resendez looked twice to make sure he hadn't misread the defense.
"When the goalie set up the defensive wall, it left a hole between two defenders," the Merced High senior said.
The Bears' top defender, he had come upfield to attempt a free kick from 35 yards but initially wasn't sure if it was best to shoot or set up a teammate.
He shot at the goal, spinning the ball so it curved just inside the right post.
The goal snapped a tie with 15 minutes left Tuesday, leading Merced past Downey 3-0 and into tonight's Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals.
Merced (20-1-2), which has never made a section final, faces Central California Conference rival Pitman (16-6-4), a 2-1 winner over Johansen, at 7 p.m. at Lincoln High in Stockton. The title game is Saturday in Folsom.
Merced dictated the tempo for the first 75 minutes but couldn't score.
A Downey foul gave the Bears a free kick, and the left-footed Garcia-Resendez used his instep to make the ball spin. The waist-high shot went between two defenders, and goalie Canek Ambriz was unable to get to the post.
"It began going to the far post, so the goalie took a step that direction, but then it came back," Garcia-Resendez said.
With time running out, Downey (14-5-3) was forced to bring up its defenders in an attempt to score the equalizer. The quicker Bears exploited the opportunity to score twice in the final five minutes.
Cristian Alvarez's crossing shot got past the goalie and hit off a defender on its way in, then Garcia-Resendez outjumped a defender to head in a corner kick.
"At that point, we'll sacrifice everything for a tying goal," Downey coach Adrian Romero said. "If we lose 1-0 or 3-0, it's all the same."
Downey found it difficult to get a good shot at goalie Aureliano Estrada, despite the effort of Scott Cunningham. The midfielder would put the ball in the penalty box, but Merced's fullbacks were too quick and agile for the forwards to overcome.
"We have good speed, and that's even with Octavio (Murillo) slowed by a hip injury," said Merced coach Bart McAfee, noting Murillo has a team-high 18 goals. "We put him at midfield so he wouldn't run as much."
Murillo's presence made it that much more difficult for Downey to set up a good shot from inside the box.
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.