Battered by ejections and a grueling three-game stretch, the #28 Gauchos went blow for blow with #7 UCLA last night, only to fall to the Bruins 3-1 thanks to three costly mistakes made in the UCSB backfield.
“Soccer is a game of mistakes, and more than anything it’s not whether you make a mistake, but it’s [whether] you get punished for them,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “And tonight, the [three] mistakes we made resulted in their goals.”
Things went wrong early for the Gauchos (6-5 overall, 2-1 Big West) as a failed clearance in the backfield by freshman midfielder David Walker allowed UCLA’s freshman midfielder Michael Stephens to collect a cross from sophomore midfielder Sal Zizzo, who then placed a goal past senior goalkeeper Kyle Reynish after a Bruin bounce off a Gaucho defenseman.
The early goal was reminiscent of last year’s 1-0 defeat in Westwood, where the Bruins (7-3-2 overall) put the game’s only goal on the board in the third minute. But with a raucous crowd of 5,500 at their backs, the Gauchos fought back to create eight first-half shots against the left coast heavyweights.
“We’re seeing some good breaks – tonight we had seven or eight,” senior midfielder and captain Bryan Byrne said. “The keeper had some good saves. We don’t usually have [opportunities like that], but tonight we had it.”
The Gaucho efforts were finally rewarded in the 24th minute of the match when a centered ball from a streaking Byrne was touched by senior midfielder Eric Frimpong to the always-dangerous Eric Avila. Avila made a cut-back that would have made Barry Sanders proud. Avila then forced a shot that sent Bruin freshman goaltender Brian Perk sprawling to the turf.
With Perk incapacitated on the ground and unable to collect the rebound, Frimpong had time to look up and shot the equalizer past a helpless Bruin defenseman.
“I thought we played well tonight,” Vom Steeg said. “Anytime you get  shots against UCLA and have four that you walk in literally… that’s the difference: finding the net and playing great defense.”
But the Gauchos were not able to hold the Bruins until the break. With Zizzo again wreaking havoc in the Santa Barbara backfield, sophomore forward Jason Leopoldo avoided the clearance attempts by the greater part of the Gaucho defense to find the net with only 45 seconds to go in the half in what would eventually end up being the game-winning kick.
“There’s a fine line between a team that makes sure, even with 45 seconds left, to kick that ball out of bounds,” Vom Steeg said. “That’s just a mistake, a bad mistake.”
Another crushing blow was dealt by the referee early in the second half as junior defender Greg Curry caught Leopoldo in the face while trying to shield him from the ball. Curry’s second yellow card, and the subsequent red, left the Gauchos down a man and a goal with nearly a whole half left to play.
The Gauchos out-shot the Bruins 8-3 in the second period, but it would not be enough as a third deadly mistake in the back, this time by senior defender Jeff Murphy, would end the night in a third Bruin score.
The nonconference loss is a frustrating one, and puts added importance on the remaining conference schedule.
Saturday night could be the Gaucho’s last chance to prove themselves on a national level and boost themselves into the postseason as they host the #1 team in the Western Region, #15 UC Irvine. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
“For us, the Big West has always been the goal and so as much as we would have loved to have won tonight, obviously, it still comes down to us beating Irvine on Saturday,” Vom Steeg said.
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