Giovanny Acosta prepares to pass the ball. Stephen Manga/Daily Nexus

After a lackluster first half, the UCSB men’s soccer team came out on fire in the second half, scoring three goals in seven minutes to cruise to a 3-0 victory over Cal State Northridge.

As has been the case for much of conference play, the Gauchos entered Saturday’s match desperately needing a win to create some separation in the standings. Both CSUN and Santa Barbara began the night tied in third place on seven points, and with only one point separating third and seventh in the conference, both teams knew the importance of a positive result.

Despite this, the Matadors emerged as the much more dangerous side in the first half. Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg opened the match in a 4-2-2-2 formation, opting to keep the same side that had tormented UC Davis earlier in the week. The Matadors were prepared, opting to play with a right winger in order to force junior forward-turned-wing-back Ignacio Tellechea to defend against their explosive attack.

In the 28th minute, CSUN’s star forward Daniel Trejo took advantage of the matchup, gathering the ball in midfield and running through the left-hand side of the defense before squaring up a near-post shot, which freshman keeper Ben Roach barely kept out. In the 33rd minute, Matador forward Johnny Rodriguez sprinted past both center backs of the Gauchos but was caught on the break by junior forward Sahid Conteh to keep the score 0-0.

Going forward, UCSB seemed just as lost, content to launch long balls to sophomore forward Rodney Michael and hope he could run onto it. With no other forward player showing any touch going forward, the offense seemed like a fish out of water during the half.

“It was clear that our plan didn’t work in the first half,” Vom Steeg said. “They had a lot of success in wide areas in the first half, and we just wanted to get into halftime with the score 0-0 so we could make adjustments.”

Thanks to some last-second defending and a handful of outstanding saves by Roach, they were indeed able to enter the locker room unscathed. From there, Vom Steeg could work his magic — the very magic that won the national championship in 2006.

“In the second half, I went back to a straight up 4-4-2 and shifted to zonal defending,” Vom Steeg said. “This allowed us to move Tellechea back up to his natural position of forward and confused the Northridge players.”

The changes worked exactly as planned. After getting outshot 8-3 in the first half, Santa Barbara came out completely re-energized in the second half, led by Tellechea’s presence at the front.

In the 50th minute, Tellechea picked up an errant clearance from the CSUN keeper near the left-side of the box and played a cutback pass to sophomore forward Kaya Fabretti in the middle of the box. With no defender near him, Fabretti easily slotted the shot past the keeper to give Santa Barbara a crucial 1-0 lead.

But the Gauchos didn’t settle there, scoring twice in a five-minute span for the fifth time this season. In the 54th minute, Conteh used his pace to sprint past the Matador defenders on the right side, before spotting sophomore forward Rodney Michael at the top of the box.

Michael gathered the pass with his right foot, before sending a shot with his left foot low and hard to the bottom right corner to double the lead for the Gauchos.

“Every time we get a first goal, we push really hard to get that second,” Conteh said. “The second goal gives us some cushion to get on the ball and take control of the game.”

Even then, Santa Barbara refused to just sit on the ball. Down the right flank once again, junior defender Noah Billingsley played in a perfect cross in the 58th minute that found the head of sophomore defender Hunter Ashworth, whose header struck the top bar and caromed down for the third and final goal of the night.

“The service was so good from him that all I had to do was put the ball on frame,” Ashworth said.

With a secure lead, the Gauchos were able to rest their starters the remainder of the night. In total, UCSB outshot CSUN 10-1 in the second half en-route to its dominant victory.

Now, the Gauchos must turn their attention to Cal Poly, who will come to Harder Stadium for the last game of the season. Santa Barbara sits alone in third place in the Big West and are only two points away from second place — a spot that would allow a first-round-bye. With their RPI all the way up to 43, another convincing win next Saturday could suddenly propel the Gauchos into the discussion for an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.

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