On the heels of its first conference loss of the season, the #10 UCSB men’s soccer team righted the ship with a 2-1 victory at UC Riverside. The win – coupled with first place Cal Poly’s tie with UC Irvine – brings the Gauchos (7-3-3 overall, 4-1-1 in the Big West) within one point of the Mustangs.
Senior forward Tino Nuñez dissected the Highlander (4-4-5, 1-2-3 Big West) defense all match long, tallying assists on goals by sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien and junior midfielder Eric Avila. The win was the first for Santa Barbara in its last three contests, as the squad got its revenge after losing to Riverside on the road last season. The Gauchos improved to 3-2-1 away from Santa Barbara on the year, while the Highlanders failed to pick up their first home win, falling to 0-2-4 at the UCR Soccer Stadium.
The Gauchos put the pressure on the Highlanders in the early going, out shooting their foes 10-2 in the first half, but could not find the back of the net. That all changed minutes into the second half when Nuñez connected with a trailing Avila in the box and the Hermann Trophy candidate beat senior goalkeeper Charles Alamo for his fourth goal of the season.
Riverside was unfazed by the quick strike and earned the equalizer only three minutes later. After a long goal kick, the ball was headed over Santa Barbara’s backline and gathered by sophomore midfield Zach Walker, who beat freshman goalkeeper Bryant Rueckner to the left side to knot the game at one.
In the 63rd minute, Nuñez went to work again, this time pairing with O’Brien to get the job done. Nuñez beat a pair of Riverside defenders and found O’Brien wide-open in the middle of the box for the game-winner. The goal was the third of the year for the San Diego transfer, who recorded a game-high seven shots.
The chase for the Big West title is shaping up as a two-team race at the halfway point of the league schedule, with UCSB and Cal Poly (9-1-2, 4-0-2 Big West) opening with a substantial lead. The Mustangs lead the way with 14 points with the Gauchos right on their heels with 13. No other team has more than seven points and UC Davis (7-4-2, 2-3-1 Big West) is the only other squad with more than one Big West victory.