Only three days after placing nine players on the All-Big West Conference Team, the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team (17-2-1) will host its first ever playoff game this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium. The Gauchos face a University of San Diego team (14-5-0) that is in the postseason for the fifth straight season.
“We’ve tried to downplay the whole experience because it’s not the first time we’ve played in a big game,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “It is important to play with confidence. Of course there are going to be nerves, but we’re very confident.”
The Gauchos enter the match riding the back of a six-game winning streak, and momentum seems to be on their side. Santa Barbara also boasts the nation’s #4 offense to go along with the best defense in the Big West this year. The Gauchos have not allowed a goal in the past 302 minutes, last giving up a goal against Northridge in a 4-2 win Nov. 6th. Freshman defender Alan Keely was named Big West Freshman of the Year, adding to Gaucho defense’s accolades.
“As we play together we become a more tighter group,” senior midfielder Dan Young said. “We’ve developed communication with each other, we know the system well and we know what each other will do.”
Senior forward Rob Friend and sophomore forward Drew McAthy have provided UCSB with a formidable 1-2 punch, combining for 35 goals on the year, the most of any Gaucho duo in school history. McAthy has been on a tear lately, netting six goals in the last three games. Friend is not far behind, scoring five during the same span. Junior midfielder Memo Arzate has set the table for the Gauchos all year, distributing the ball brilliantly and posting a Gaucho record 18 assists on the year.
“With any team that plays us, they have to deal with Rob and he attracts a couple of their players,” Vom Steeg said. “I think they will also struggle to contain Memo.”
San Diego enters the game with considerable playoff experience, something valuable that the Gauchos lack. But while the Toreros have shut out their last two opponents, prior to that USD had lost three of its last four games, which started the plummet down the rankings.
“[San Diego] has lost three of their last seven games coming in so they are coming into the game with question marks,” Vom Steeg said.
But the Toreros do enter the contest with the West Coast Conference Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in senior forward Ryan Coiner and junior midfielder Scott Burcar. Coiner tallied 14 goals and nine assists on the year, and will command a lot of attention from Gaucho defenders.
“Coiner is very physical and exceptionally quick. He’s about 6’1, 185 but he plays bigger than that,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s the type of player you can shut down for 88 minutes and then with 2 minutes left he can beat someone and score. I was very impressed with him, he’s a very good player.”
The Gauchos have a big physical forward of their own in Rob Friend, who was recently named the Big West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year for the second straight year. Rob has tallied 33 goals over the last two seasons and remains the Gauchos’ best scoring threat.
“It’s always nice to get personal awards, but it’s not my number one goal,” Friend said. “I try to help out the team as much as I can to get the team to where we are now.”
This will also be the 12th meeting between the two teams, with San Diego holding the series lead at 6-5. USD has won the last 6 matches, after Santa Barbara won the first five. But the Gauchos may have caught a break playing the Toreros at home.
“We are glad that we are playing them at home, they are very hard to play at their place,” Vom Steeg said. ” I think San Diego is as good if not better than Berkeley or UCLA; this will be a good game.”
College Soccer News agrees with Vom Steeg, stating that this game “just might be the best first round matchup in the tourney.”