The strategy is simple – at least in the words of UCSB men’s soccer Assistant Coach Rick Barker it is.
“Score one more than they do.”
Sounds easy enough. Except last time out against Irvine, that strategy didn’t work. The October home game ended in a 2-2 tie, largely due to a memorable goal by senior defender Reuben Bates in the 89th minute on his first shot of the season. The shot squeezed its way past UCI goalkeeper CJ Cooper, and no one would score in overtime.
“[Cooper] had the game of his life against us last time,” Barker said. “He’s a great keeper, but we can definitely beat him.”
Santa Barbara has to hope so. After all, everything is on the line tonight against second-place Irvine. If the Gauchos win, they win the Big West; it’s as simple as that. Another tie against Irvine would add a little more drama. UCSB would then have to beat Cal State Fullerton in its last game of the season to win the league.
But a win could mean a whole lot more. A win against Irvine and then against Fullerton would give the Gauchos an honest chance at making the NCAA Playoffs. The Big West Champion does not receive an automatic bid for the postseason and must be voted in.
“I think we’ll need to win out,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “It would be six straight, and with our tie against UCLA in addition to beating Fullerton twice and some of the other teams we’ve beaten, that would give us a good chance for the Playoffs.”
Santa Barbara and Irvine sit in first and second place, respectively. Even in the Big West stat book, the two teams head nearly every category, including points, goals and goals allowed. As far as the Big West is concerned, tonight is the battle of the titans. But as far as Irvine Head Coach George Kuntz is concerned, tonight is a chance for revenge.
“Last time out, we lost it in the end,” he said, referring to the scrappy goal by Bates. “We can’t allow something like that again, especially with so much riding on this game.”
The Gauchos will enjoy the return of senior midfielder Brian Reardon, whose ankle injury has kept him sidelined for a majority of the season. His speed will be a definite asset for the team against Irvine.
Otherwise, the lineup figures to be comparable to previous games, with Big West points leader Rob Friend spearheading the attack. The junior forward has nine goals thus far and will undoubtedly see plenty of shot opportunities this weekend.
UCSB will still be without junior defender Neil Jones, who has been out with a leg injury for three games. But the Gaucho defense has stepped up in his absence, allowing only one goal in 270 minutes.
Tonight’s away game against Irvine will begin at 7. UCSB travels to Fullerton on Sunday for its final game of the regular season.