Forget the rankings; the Big West Championships are on the line.
The #15 UCSB and #21 Northridge men’s soccer squads square off at Northridge this afternoon, which means only one thing: Animosity reigns.
“They hate us and we hate them. Every time we step across that white line, we know we’re in for a battle,” senior forward Neil Jones said. “It’s basically a four-game season now and Northridge is on the top of the list.”
The two teams have a recent history of turmoil with each other, and the aggression should only swell after today’s match. Both the Gauchos and the Matadors control their own destiny with just four games remaining. Within a matter of two years, the two teams have created a Big West rivalry that always manages to leave one team with a bitter taste and the other with a sweet tooth.
“In my opinion, they’re the best and most talented team we’ve faced all year. They were the first time we played them and I think they still are,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said.
On that occasion, the Gauchos and Matadors traded goals until freshman midfielder Jeff Murphy scored the game-winner with a header late in the second half. The CSUN defeat at Harder Stadium should be fresh in the minds of Northridge, one of the most offensively geared teams in the nation. The Matadors lead the nation in goals per game with 2.93 per contest, a frightening statistic for the Gauchos, who have been struggling to find consistency on their front line lately.
“I believe we are going to have some quality chances to score and it usually falls on [junior forward] Drew [McAthy] and [senior forward] Neil [Jones] to make it happen,” Vom Steeg said. “The second factor is [that] we need to avoid mistakes. I think we can beat anybody in the country, but we could also lose to anybody if you don’t finish on your chances.”
Closing in on its third consecutive Big West championship, Santa Barbara’s home stretch has not been any less strenuous than when defending the title a year ago. With Irvine one point behind the Gauchos and Northridge trailing by just two, the complexity of the Big West standings could change with a single miscue or a fluke goal. Should the teams tie, it would open the door for Irvine to take control of first place in conference as the Anteaters play the typically overmatched Cal Poly Mustangs tonight.
When all is said and done, today’s contest could be viewed as the turning point in either team’s season.