When the first place Gauchos (11-6-0 overall, 6-2-0 in the Big West) take the field tonight in Irvine, they do so with the knowledge that they are a mere 90 minutes from a league championship.
A win tonight would set them up five points ahead of a playoff-hungry Irvine squad (12-3-3, 5-2-1 Big West) and well beyond the reach of third place Northridge (7-6-5, 4-2-3 Big West) with only one game left to play.
“Do I think we’re in the NCAA playoffs at this point in the year [even] if we lose the last two games? Yeah, I do,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “But the goal for this year was more than making the playoffs; the goal for this year was to win the league championship.”
But the road to the Big West championship goes through Irvine – a squad once ranked as high as seventh in the country this season. Currently, the Anteaters remain unbeaten in their last five games and find themselves two points behind the first place Gauchos.
Midfielders Matt Murphy and Anthony Hamilton lead the Anteaters in scoring with nine and eight goals respectively, but it is another offensive head that worries coach Vom Steeg more.
“Irvine has one very important player [and] that is Brad Evans. We didn’t see Murphy or Evans last game; we did see [Murphy] play down in Fullerton and he’s got a very good shot, but to me he wasn’t the player on the field who was the most dangerous,” Vom Steeg said. “It wasn’t like he was creating anything for himself; everything was still coming off Brad Evans. It’s Brad Evans who creates for Hamilton and its Brad Evans who creates for Murphy.”
Vom Steeg’s impression of the offensive scheme has roots in the team’s first meeting this season, when the Gauchos triumphed over the top-ten Anteaters at home off Nick Perera’s couplet of goals.
Cause for concern, perhaps, can be found in the fact that out of Irvine’s three leading scorers, only Hamilton was on the field last time. But Vom Steeg makes no mistake in singling out Irvine’s biggest threat.
“Without Brad Evans, Murphy is not really a big issue for me. And Hamilton was on the field last game and they had only two shots for the entire game,” Vom Steeg said. “So on his own, Hamilton can’t create anything either; they really do rely on Brad [Evans].”
A road-match in Irvine will not be an easy way to close out a league championship, but the Gauchos can take comfort in knowing that both Irvine and Northridge have a difficult road ahead.
“Their strength is up front [because] their best two players are up front, [so] they don’t really want to spend a whole lot of time moving the ball around and waiting to get the ball up,” Vom Steeg said. “But for us, the key is getting out of the first fifteen minutes without giving up an early goal and not giving them any confidence. If we do that, and the game goes on, then I’m very confident that we’ll score a goal; it’s the same recipe that we’ve followed the last five or six games now.”
The 7 p.m. kickoff will pit the boys in blue against a very direct Irvine style of soccer, on a pitch to match.