It’s always hard to get a bad taste out of your mouth.
In North Carolina, the UCSB men’s soccer team washed away the bitterness of losing in overtime to St. John’s University in last year’s Sweet 16. This time they decided to leave an ugly taste on the tongue of someone else.
The Gauchos (19-2-1 overall) bounced back from receiving an early red card to defeat University of North Carolina at Greensboro 1-0 on Sunday. Playing while down one man for 88 minutes, UCSB needed overtime to knock the Spartans out of their first-ever Sweet 16 appearance in any sport in its 14 years at the Division I level.
Senior midfielder Matt Bly was the hero in the Gauchos’ second Sweet 16 game in as many years. Four minutes into the first overtime, UCSB threw the ball in from the right sideline where it found junior midfielder Ivan Becerra. With numbers in the box, Becerra took a shot that, although it wasn’t on goal, found Bly at the far post. The Santa Rosa native bumped the ball from his chest to his right foot and drove it past Greensboro’s junior goalkeeper, Jay Benfield, to put the Gauchos past the Spartans.
The game-winner was Bly’s second goal of the season and capped the Gauchos’ sixth win in overtime this year. The team remains undefeated in seven overtime games this season. Becerra, who was not a sure pick to make the team’s limited 18-player roster for the match, recorded his second game-winning assist in the past four matches.
“We just had to keep playing along there. The defense did a great job to keep us in the game. Our attack did change a lot once [senior forward Neil] Jones went off,” Bly said. “I thought we should have finished a couple of those [chances] off a lot earlier in the game. You just kind of had that feeling out there that we were going to get one. We just needed that one goal – and that one goal came.”
The game started off with a bang. The referee doled out four cards to the two teams in the first six minutes. A collision in the box between Benfield and Jones drew the first yellow card of the match in just the second minute. Less than two minutes later, the Atlantic Coast Conference referee handed a card to the Gaucho bench.
Another ball sent into the box for UCSB resulted in a second run-in between Jones and Benfield. This time, the referee had seen enough. After Benfield ended up on the ground again, Jones was given the red card, leaving the Gauchos with 10 men on the field and without their second leading scorer.
“Certainly the game was all about what happened that first six minutes. It’s hard enough playing a man down, I’ve never been in a game where you go a man down and have to play the whole game that way,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Obviously, on top of that, it was a big hit for us not only going a man down, but also we felt that [Jones] was going to be the key to the game for us because of how small their center backs were and how dominant [Jones] is up front.”
Shorthanded, UCSB relied on its defense and depth to stick with the top-scoring offense in the nation. Freshman defender Andy Iro managed the task of marking the Spartans’ leading scorer, sophomore Randi Patterson, holding him to just one shot through nearly 94 minutes. Defenders senior Tony Lochhead and junior Pat Scott and junior central midfielder Nate Boyden helped to stifle Greensboro, allowing just five shots en route to the team’s 14th shutout of the season. Senior keeper Danny Kennedy needed just two saves to record his 12th complete game shutout, a new UCSB school record.
“You always feel like you’ve got an edge when they go down a man. The edge is only that it makes it a little harder for them to score a goal, but it doesn’t take away from their defense,” Greensboro Head Coach Michael Parker said. “I really think our lack of playoff experience hurt us today.”
Vom Steeg subbed freely, giving much-needed breaks to the forwards and midfielders who were working back to cover the extra player on the field for the Spartans.
The Gauchos’ first-ever Sweet 16 win advances them to their first-ever quarterfinal appearance in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament. After upsetting #1 tournament seed Wake Forest University on Saturday, Virginia Commonwealth will travel to Santa Barbara this Saturday for its Elite Eight match-up with UCSB.
The Rams (12-5-3) are the #16 seed in the tournament and this season’s Colonial Athletic Association champion. Head Coach Tim O’Sullivan has now led Virginia Commonwealth to the tournament for three straight seasons. For the first time in school history, the Rams will travel west of the Mississippi River to meet up with the #1 ranked Gauchos.
Virginia Commonwealth boasts eight international players, including two of their leading scorers, juniors forward Dominic Oduro and midfielder Ricardo Opoku, both hailing from Accra, Guana. Oduro tops the team, gathering 31 points on 15 goals and one assist.
On the line in the Elite Eight match is the right to move on to the NCAA College Cup Final Four next weekend to be played in Carson ,Calif., at the Home Depot Center. Kickoff for Saturday’s quarterfinal is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium.