After living out of their suitcases for nearly a week, the UCSB men’s soccer team returns home this weekend looking for some more Harder Stadium magic.
The squad aims to advance to its second College Cup in the last three years on Saturday, when Northwestern (14-7 overall) comes to town. The last time the Gauchos (15-7 overall) hosted an Elite Eight game occurred back in 2004, when a crowd of over 11,000 cheered UCSB to a 4-1 victory over Virginia Commonwealth University.
The home pitch has been friendly to Santa Barbara so far in 2006, as the squad has posted a 10-2 mark, including a win in each of its last six home contests. UCSB has never lost a playoff game at Harder Stadium and was last taken down at home in early October.
“A home game is definitely something we didn’t expect when we saw the draw,” senior midfielder Bryan Byrne said. “It was a disappointment to go to Old Dominion and knowing that we don’t have to travel is huge.”
Northwestern will come out with a vengeance as the Gauchos embarrassed the Wildcats 6-1 early last season, a game in which junior midfielder Tyler Rosenlund netted a pair of goals.
Like Santa Barbara, Northwestern is unseeded in this year’s tournament and is coming off a 2-1 Sweet Sixteen victory at home over the University of North Carolina Greensboro. The Wildcats received a penalty kick goal from sophomore defender Brian Usinger and the game winner from senior forward Gerardo Alvarez. Northwestern last made the NCAA Tournament in 2004, when they reached the second round.
“They have a big guy up front and he holds onto the ball quite well and they have some good midfielders and very big guys in the back,” Assistant Coach Neil Jones said. “They are dangerous on set pieces because of the big guys and one of their midfielders has a quality left foot.”
Sophomore forward Nick Perera has been the spark for the Gaucho offense this postseason, starting off the scoring in the last two matches as he has now tallied 16 points, good for second on the team.
After inconsistent offensive displays throughout most of the season, the squad’s re-energized offense has netted 11 goals in its last four matches.
“Two huge goals, both got us off to a great start,” Jones said. “It kind of takes the weight off everyone’s shoulders. Playoff games are so huge that every goal is worth its weight in gold and it takes the pressure off.”
At the other end of the pitch, senior goalkeeper Kyle Reynish’s excellent play has carried over to the postseason. The Santa Barbara back line has contained three talented offenses in the tournament and Reynish was spectacular against the Monarchs, stopping a penalty kick with five minutes remaining and posting a playoff career-high seven saves.
“You can rely on him so much,” Byrne said. “If there is anything we know, it’s that Reynish reads people so well and we have 100 percent faith in him.”
The Gauchos could not have picked a more perfect time to put together their best soccer of the season, having won four straight and eight of their last ten. With both the offense and defense finally clicking at the same time, and the support of the Harder Stadium crowd behind them, Santa Barbara sits just one win away from another College Cup