From the depths of the latest valley in this roller-coaster-ride of a season, the #28 Gauchos arose to dominate #7 UC Irvine 2-0 Saturday night.
All the scoring came from sophomore forward Nick Perera, who put UCSB (7-5-0 overall, 3-1-0 in the Big West) in front early in the 15th minute, while the defense held the #1 team in the West to just two shots.
“[Junior defender and captain Andy] Iro was dominant [Saturday] because [Irvine] likes to launch the ball up in the air, and anytime that happens it’s a big game for him,” Perera said. “If he can dominate his matchup, then the team has it easier. And anytime that you limit the other team to two shots, you know that your whole defense is doing an amazing job.”
On the offensive end, UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg’s continued faith in Perera paid off after an attempted clearance by the Irvine defense bounced off the back of junior midfielder Brennan Tennelle and right to Perera. With the ball at his feet at the right side of the box, he cocked back to shoot, but instead cut it back past a sliding duo of defenders and toe-poked it to the back post for the eventual game-winner.
Number two on the night for the forward dubbed “Belgium” unfolded like a soccer clinic through cones; Perera collected a goalie clearance and quickly played a 1-2 with senior midfielder Eric Frimpong around the final defender, springing him on a breakaway. With just the goalie to beat, Perera stepped inside the box and chipped one home to finish off the Anteaters (8-2-2 overall, 3-1-0 Big West).
The goals were Perera’s second and third of the season, a record that makes him the team’s second leading scorer behind freshman forward Bongomin Otii.
Even more impressive may be the timing of Perera’s scoring this season. Considering that his first goal this season was the overtime game-winner against Cal State Fullerton, and now Saturday’s 2-0 win has revived the Gauchos’ postseason hopes, Belgium’s offensive contributions seem all the more valuable.
“[Vom Steeg] has put a lot of confidence in me right now; he’s let me start the last five games in a row, so it feels good to pay him back for trusting in me that much,” Perera said. “I’m a confidence player; when I feel like the team is behind me I can play well.”
The defensive stand, which was Santa Barbara’s sixth shutout of the regular season, may have been aided by the red-card suspensions of Irvine’s leading goal-scorers, Brad Evans and Matt Murphy.
“They were missing a couple of key players, but it doesn’t really matter,” Perera said. “If you’re a powerhouse like that, you’ve got good players no matter what. They came out and at the beginning didn’t really run at us, so we just ran at them.”
Santa Barbara, fighting in a game labeled by Vom Steeg as a season breaking point, looked more tenacious than usual for the majority of the game.
“[The key to the defense on Saturday was] winning the head balls which we did pretty effectively,” Iro said. “We shut those down and they weren’t able to do anything else. If you shut those down then they’re not the best team to play.”
The win puts UCSB on top of the Big West standings, as it now holds the head-to-head tiebreak over the second-place Anteaters.
Continually dangerous Cal State Northridge holds the third-place position, but will not make it out of league play without a Harder Stadium showdown in late October.
And likewise, the Gauchos will have to prove themselves all over again when they head to Irvine on Nov. 1.
“They have a game plan that matches their field,” said Perera, referring to the long ball. “But they weren’t able to do it against us here [on Saturday].”
UCSB returns to action this Wednesday in Riverside at 3 p.m.