With the luck of the Irish and 2,500 raucous fans behind them, the #17 Gauchos came from behind for the first time all season to beat San Diego State 2-1 and push themselves into the second round of the NCAA Playoffs.
A menacing first half attack by the Aztecs proved fruitless, but they eventually broke the scoreless tie in Saturday’s standoff in the 55th minute of play. Their advantage was short lived, though, as the Gauchos’ second-half press produced a pair of goals on the scoreboard 10 minutes later.
“We haven’t come back from a 1-0 lead all season, so to do it in a playoff game against a very, very good defensive team is no small feat,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “I think the difference was we fell behind and we had enough time to do something about it; if that goal comes a little bit later, that might be a problem, but it happened early.”
The equalizer for the Gauchos came in the 66th minute at the foot of senior captain Bryan Byrne. The Ireland-native sent a curling corner kick toward the goal only to have it punched directly back to him by Aztec keeper Tally Hall. Byrne had enough time to settle down and compose himself before sending a second attempt into the box.
The second ball sailed towards the far post and, with a favorable touch of wind, caught Hall off guard. After making contact with Hall’s glove and then the crossbar, the referees determined that the ball had indeed crossed the goal line.
“First of all, if I was back in Ireland right now, they would have called that a cracker,” Byrne said. “But we’re in the playoffs now and it’s all about getting a little bit of luck.”
After Byrne’s tying strike, the noise in Harder Stadium swelled as a shot by junior midfielder Tyler Rosenlund bounced off an Aztec defender. The ricochet found junior defender Andy Iro in the box, who blasted his first goal of the season into an open net.
“I don’t think [the first goal] rattled us,” SDSU Head Coach Lev Kirshner said. “I think they got the energy from the crowd. … That first goal got them energized, and the crowd was just going ballistic and kept them sustained. [Harder Stadium is] a tough environment [to play in and] it’d be really nice if we could get home and play UCSB once; but it is what it is.”
Throughout the course of the game, San Diego contested many of the referees’ close calls. Since the first goal bounced near the goal line before Hall was able to swat it away, the Aztecs argued heatedly with the referees over whether the ball actually crossed the line. After the Gauchos’ second goal of the game, question was raised over whether Iro received the ball offsides after Hall stepped in front of the final defender.
“I didn’t feel that the first ball crossed the line; I saw the ball the whole time and it never went over the line in my opinion,” Hall said. “And on the second, I felt that since I’d moved forward, I had become the second defender and with [a player behind me], he was in an offsides position. But to be honest, [my complaints] were probably just as much frustration as anything else.”
The triumph at Harder becomes all the more impressive after an explanation of the frantic opening minutes of play from Santa Barbara’s side.
“If [it appeared] that we were confused in the first 10 minutes, it was because we really were,” Vom Steeg said. “[Senior defender] Jeff Murphy was taking a penalty kick in practice and pulled his quad; he was the centerpiece to our defense, but he goes to warm up and he’s done for the game.”
As a result, sophomore defender Kyle Kaveny and the rest of the defense had less than five minutes notice that Kaveny would play in Murphy’s place. But after several close calls in the first half, including a hockey-like knee save by senior goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, Santa Barbara was able to head for the lockers unscathed.
Saturday’s first-round victory sends the boys in blue deep into the heart of Texas to face the #3 seed Southern Methodist University on Wednesday at 5 p.m.