The UCSB men’s soccer team closes out a three-game home-stand today against UC Davis in a match that could have significant playoff implications.
An up-and-down Gaucho team currently sits in a tie for second place in the Big West North Division at 7-6-3 overall and 3-2-2 in conference. The Aggies, the last team to hand UCSB a loss, have gone 6-1-9 overall this year and are in first place in the North at 4-1-2 Big West.
“You’ll see a completely different game against Davis,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “None of these games are a given for anybody. All we know is that Davis is here and obviously that this is the game in front of us.”
While Santa Barbara’s main concern in recent weeks has been the stability of its lineup with constant injuries and suspensions, tonight’s most pressing issue will simply be trying to handle Davis’ “whatever it takes” style of play.
In the last game between the two teams almost two weeks ago, the Aggies flustered UCSB by making the game “something that resembles a soccer game,” according to Vom Steeg, but wasn’t actually “real soccer.” With constant substitutions, fouls and hopeful long balls into the box, Davis was able to keep the Gauchos from playing the way they wanted: trapping and passing as they pushed forward with a natural build-up.
After an exhausting 106 minutes, the Aggies managed to pull out the 1-0 double overtime win off of a very late goal by junior midfielder Lucas Mohageg. “One of the biggest problems in college soccer is unlimited substitutions,” Vom Steeg said. “Hopefully we can find a way to get out there and play soccer and come away with a win.”
After UCSB went winless in four straight road games, its recent return to Harder Stadium has seen the renewal of the team’s offensive swagger. The Gauchos were shutout in three out of four games prior to their return to Harder, but in the two games back, they have averaged three goals a game.
One of the biggest reasons for this has been freshman midfielder Axel Mendez, who was named Big West Player of the Week on Monday for his performances last weekend. Mendez scored two goals, earning his first career brace, in a dominant 4-1 victory over Sacramento State before leading the team with six shots against Cal Poly three nights later.
The team’s leading goalscorers, sophomore midfielder/defender Nick DePuy and freshman forward/midfielder Ludwig Ahl both found the net in the comeback effort against Cal Poly, marking the first time that either has scored since the first weekend of Big West play. DePuy owns team highs with 11 points and five goals while Ahl is right behind with 10 points and four goals.
Since the beginning of conference play, UCSB is tied for first in the Big West with 31 offensive points.
“We’ve got a real hungry group right now,” Vom Steeg said. “We’re so much better than we were a month ago when we were struggling a little bit. We can actually watch these games now.”
With the Aggies having lost just one game this entire season, the key to their success has been none other than their fantastic defense. As a team, Davis has allowed a remarkable nine goals through 16 games, eight less than the second lowest total.
The secret to the Aggies’ success is the fact that they don’t allow very many shots on goal, resulting in their relatively low total of 51 saves this season, tied for second worst in the conference. Goalkeepers in sophomore Armando Quezada and junior Kris Schultz are in the top three in the Big West in goals against, goals against average and save percent.
Offensively, Mohageg and senior forward Matt Sheldon lead the way with eight points each. As a team, the Aggies have scored just 15 goals this season, averaging less than one per game, something that can easily be contributed to their unorthodox playing style.
With the top three teams in each division making the Big West Tournament, a win tonight would put the Gauchos in a tie for first place in the North, potentially earning them a first round bye. A loss could put their postseason hopes in jeopardy, as fourth place Sacramento State lurks just one win behind at 2-4-1 Big West. The game is set to begin at 7:00 p.m. tonight at Harder Stadium.