Fatigued and frustrated after a fruitless 90 minutes of play, the Gauchos (6-4 overall, 2-1 in the Big West) overcame two more ejections, after the five red cards issued last week in Northridge, and the psychological consequences of their two-game slide to trounce Michigan (5-5-2 overall) in double overtime.
In the end it was freshman midfielder Jon Curry who played the hero Saturday after an assist by sophomore midfielder Eric Avila, for a flawlessly placed ground-bound rocket in the 104th minute that bounced off the edge of the goalpost to find the back of the net behind the Wolverines’ freshman goalkeeper Patrick Sperry, with 31 seconds remaining.
“The red cards didn’t help us, but even before that we started tiring a little bit,” junior captain and defender Andy Iro said. “[In the end] it was just a case of who was going to take the break.”
The Gauchos dominated the first half of play en route to posting a 13-3 shot advantage. Although their efforts could not chalk up a number on the board, it looked like the team had resettled and would cruise past its unranked but continually dangerous adversaries.
Unfortunately, the once-established equilibrium between ferocity and composure would not endure. The second half and first overtime saw the Wolverines jump into the driver’s seat with eight shots to the Gauchos’ three.
“[Senior goalkeeper] Kyle [Reynish] made some very good saves for us and kept the game [until we] got the shot,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said.
The situation steadily worsened in the first overtime when an emotive flare-up between junior midfielder Brennan Tennelle and the Wolverines’ sophomore defender Chase Tennant escalated beyond the control of their teammates. The official likewise tried to dive in to separate the two by physical force, but they were out for blood and, accordingly, soon out for the game.
A reckless airborne challenge by junior forward Tony Chinakwe, however controversial, ended his night just minutes later – and then there were nine.
“We gutted one out [tonight],” Vom Steeg said. “I thought we played a very good first half but we missed our chances. That game could have been 2- or 3-0 and it would have been a different story.”
While the Gauchos were clearly dominant during their better moments Saturday night, one must keep in mind that they were not playing against a record-padding patsy. Michigan posted an overall winning record in the NCAA tournament over the last three years and battled the Gauchos’ most notorious opponent, #20 Indiana, to a tie just last week.
“That’s a very good team, so it’s no surprise they tied Indiana,” Vom Steeg said. “All our games are like this – we got one opportunity and we finished it.”
In what ended as a nine-on-ten scrap-fest, the referee dealt nine yellow cards and 46 fouls.
The road ahead does not get any easier for the Gauchos, as Thursday brings home #19 UCLA.
“The whole thing about the game is coming out with the energy we’ve had in the past,” Curry said. “We need to [continue to] get shots on frame.”