As the final whistle blew on Saturday night the UCSB men’s soccer team collapsed on the Harder Stadium pitch— a combination of exhaustion and sheer excitement coursing through their bodies. Finally, they had the quality win they so desperately had been searching for all season, taking down No.23 UCLA 3-1.
The Gauchos’ hunger for an upset was evident from the opening whistle, though perhaps no single player embodied that spirit more than sophomore forward Rodney Michael. Michael was a threat the entire match, terrorizing the UCLA back three with his elite pace. Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg had opted to start the game with two forwards, allowing Michael to feed off of holdup play from fellow forward Carter Clemenson.
“Their formation allowed us to put our players in good positions,” Vom Steeg said. “ This whole year, we’ve been a dangerous team when we’re able to put two forwards up front.”
The formation also allowed ample space for creative midfielder Axel Mendez to serve balls to the forward. In the 15th minute—a mere ten minutes after UCLA had scored a remarkable goal from 23 yards out—Mendez found Michael running forward, lofting a ball over the top of the UCLA defense. It merely took Michael two touches to outrun the defense, before he cooly slotted the ball to the bottom left corner to tie the score 1-1.
“I think them scoring an early goal motivated us even more to go out and work harder,” Michael said. “I had been making that run early in the game, and on that play [Mendez] was able to find me. I was way ahead of the defenders, so it was an easy finish for me.”
Because of the offensive firepower the Bruins have at their disposal, the Gauchos knew they couldn’t settle. Less than a minute later, off a corner created once again by the pace of the forwards, a mad scram in front of goal resulted in a UCLA own goal, giving the Gauchos a 2-1 lead as the 5100 in attendance roared in approval.
Five minutes later, the Gauchos added a third, this time off of a set piece play the team had practiced just the day before the match.
“In practice we worked on me standing in front of the keeper on corners and peeling off when the ball came,” Michael explained. “I was in the right place and the ball luckily fell for me; all I had to do was push the ball past the keeper.”
With a comfortable 3-1 lead in hand, things began to get chippy on the pitch. Within the first 37 minutes of the half, UCLA had accumulated five yellow cards—with Vom Steeg doing his best to substitute off those players. But just 20 seconds after picking up his first yellow card, sophomore midfielder Sahid Conteh took down a UCLA player with a late challenge. The referee, eager to keep the game under control, immediately reached for his pocket, pulling out a second yellow for Conteh. Suddenly, the Gauchos had the unenviable task of holding the lead with only ten men for the next 50 minutes.
“Going a man down is not ideal, especially 35 minutes in,” junior defender Hunter Ashworth said.” For us, we didn’t change anything– we just covered the extra player. I don’t think we felt uncomfortable with ten players; if anything, that was the extra motivation we needed to get through the match.”
After halftime, Santa Barbara was forced to withdraw deep in their own half, content with conceding possession to UCLA as long as they weren’t threatening the goal. Despite lacking service, the UCSB forwards continued to impress with their work rate, chasing after every loose ball.
On the defensive end, the Gauchos were more than content to give up set pieces—as long as they weren’t in an overly threatening position. UCSB seemed to win every aerial ball, keeping the Bruins at bay for a majority of the second half despite playing a man down.
“We haven’t given up a goal on a set piece all season,” Ashworth said. “ Set pieces are an asset to our game that we look to capitalize on.”
In the final ten minutes, the Bruins finally were able to break through—launching three shots on goal—but freshman keeper Ben Roach stood strong, seemingly grabbing any loose ball in his vicinity.
“[Roach] played one of the finer games I’ve seen from a Santa Barbara goalie in a long, long time,” Vom Steeg said.
When that final whistle blew, the relief on the faces of the UCSB players was palpable—a quality win finally secured for their postseason resume. The victory propels the Gauchos to 5-3, while the Bruins fall to 4-3 with the loss.
More importantly, Santa Barbara showed the world on Saturday that they can hang with any team in the country; that their postseason aspirations are not merely a pipe dream, but a legitimate reality.