There really is no explanation for the Final Four run that the 2006 Gauchos men’s soccer team is on. When they fell to Irvine one month ago today and surrendered the league lead with one week left to play, it looked as if the end to UCSB’s erratic season had finally come.
But their story wasn’t finished. Thanks to Northridge, the boys in blue were given a second chance for a postseason and have certainly made the most of it – one upset after another. Tonight their journey continues as Santa Barbara (17-6-0) takes the field in St. Louis against the tournament’s top remaining seed, #2 Wake Forrest Wake Forest (18-3-3).
“The best thing going for us is that this [playoff run] is somewhat unexpected; it came out of a season where we didn’t think we were going to go anywhere [and that] gives us a little more of a carefree attitude,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “When we played [Southern Methodist University], the article that day in the Dallas paper asked, ‘Is this the year?’ With us, I wouldn’t call this our year, and yet, here we are.”
Wake Forest is no stranger to the tournament, as they have boasted high seeds several times in the recent past, but are also no strangers to early exits, never before seeing the light of a quarterfinal match.
“They’ve always got the weight of the world because they’re always one of the top four seeds in the tournament,” Vom Steeg said. “And they’ve crumbled under that weight. When you’re one of the top four seeds, you [feel that you] should make it to the Final Four; you’ve got home games [all the way], and if you don’t make it, then you [feel you] screwed up. There’s just that expectation.”
Besides the obvious mismatch of a #2 seed playing an unranked Cinderella squad, the dynamic of tonight’s semifinal will likely be shaped from the stark contrast in style of play. As fortune has dictated, both semifinal matches will pit the tenacious West Coast against the conventions of the East.
“East Coast schools don’t change very often; they have a set lineup and a set system. I think they feel because their players are some of the best players in the country they don’t have to adjust to anyone they play,” Vom Steeg said. “I always have taken that as an advantage [because] if we can change some things around, then we can make things difficult on them. And they struggle with that.”
However, Wake Forest is the #2 seed for good reason. The Demon Deacons have lost only three games all year and two of those blemishes on their record came from the tournament’s #1 seed Duke. Furthermore, Wake Forest has lost only once in their last 15 games, a 1-0 loss in the ACC Championship thanks to the Blue Devils.
The Deacons may have turned some heads and established themselves as one of college soccer’s elite, but it is worthy of note that thus far in the playoffs they have yet to play outside the friendly confines of their home stadium. Tonight, they will have to face trial by fire as fish out of water.
“Wake Forest never had to travel in the playoffs and we’ve done the ‘road thing,'” Vom Steeg said. “That does play into it. [We’ll be] in a different place and we’ve [already played] in different places.”
The Gauchos of today may not have put together such a dominant season like the 2004 team was able to do, but they are becoming increasingly reminiscent of that squad everyday.
“I think the big similarity between the two teams is that we started to get contributions from different players in the playoffs,” Vom Steeg said. “Two years ago, Pat Scott won that game in overtime and hadn’t scored a goal all year and Matt Bly scored in Greensboro in overtime. Now we’ve started getting production now from different players as well.”
While production up front has seen a spike of late, the Gauchos will have to once again find a way to get the job done in the backfield without the help of senior defender Jeff Murphy, who remains sidelined due to injury.
Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. PDST. The game will be broadcast live on KCSB radio and will then be shown on tape delay Saturday at 2 a.m. on ESPNU and later that afternoon on ESPN2 at 2 p.m.