Six weeks ago, the UCSB men’s soccer team’s season was in peril. Now the squad is making its second College Cup appearance in the last three years.
The squad has battled back from a 7-6 start to win nine of its last 10 matches, one of which was Saturday’s 3-2 win over Northwestern University at Harder Stadium in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. In front of a crowd of 8,784 screaming fans, junior midfielder Tyler Rosenlund scored three times, including the game-winner in the 63rd minute to propel the Gauchos (16-7 overall) into the Final Four.
“I was at the point where I didn’t think we were going to go anywhere,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “As you saw [Saturday], this is a very talented group of players, so I’m really thrilled for them and excited for them. This group refused to have their year end.”
Santa Barbara got a quick goal for the third straight game thanks to the brilliant play of senior forward Bryan Byrne. The Irishman outran his defender to the corner flag and his cross found Rosenlund in front of an empty net for the game’s first goal.
But the awakening of the Harder crowd didn’t faze the Wildcats (14-8) as they answered back minutes later. Freshman midfielder Carl Pett picked up the ball on the right sideline and the Gaucho defender, junior Andy Iro, fell down in pursuit. Pett crossed to senior forward Brad North, who was unmarked in front of the goal, and tied the match.
Gaining momentum after the tying goal, the Wildcats controlled the rest of the half and got another chance in the 38th minute. Senior forward Gerardo Alvarez blasted a free kick from 25 yards out into the upper left corner past senior goalkeeper Kyle Reynish for a 2-1 lead.
“I thought that second goal was ridiculously good,” Vom Steeg said. “No one really stops that shot.”
The previous time the Gauchos set foot on the Harder Stadium pitch, they picked up their first come-from-behind victory of the season when they knocked off San Diego State in the first round, and the squad remained confident at the half despite the deficit.
“We knew that we had created a lot of chances in the first half and because you go into halftime knowing you created good chances, and you played pretty well, you knew those chances were going to happen in the second half,” Vom Steeg said.
Just minutes into the second half, freshman midfielder Jon Curry beat his defender to the end line in the box and found Rosenlund in the middle for another easy goal, which tied the score After nursing an injury for most of the season and only recently getting back in shape, the Canadian now has four goals this season.
“I just made a run in the box and the ball was there right when I went to hit it,” Rosenlund said. “Easy goals: two open nets, basically.”
Fifteen minutes later, Rosenlund again found himself with the ball in the box, this time at the top left corner on a feed from sophomore midfielder Eric Avila. Rosenlund lofted an arching shot that beat junior keeper Justin Pines to the far post.
“I just picked up my head and he was four or five yards off his line at the front post,” Rosenlund said. “I thought if I could get it over the top of him it was gonna go in.”
Santa Barbara out-shot the Wildcats 9-4 in the second half and was able to dominate possession for the majority of the second half and contain the Northwestern offense with the help of a halftime formation change.
“We went back to a three back,” Vom Steeg said. “In the first half we were staying with two defenders and we went to three. It just worked. We’re very comfortable in a three-back system and that combination made us much more dangerous.”
The Gauchos have had an improbable turn around and have benefited from many upsets in their bracket. The squad next faces the #2 seed Wake Forest in the semifinals, with the winner moving on the face the victor of the #8 UCLA versus #4 Virginia match.