With a chance to take control of the race for the conference championship, the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team dominated Cal Poly 3-1 in front of a Big West record crowd of 8,102 Saturday night at Harder Stadium.
In an environment that seemed more fitting for a NCAA Tournament match than a regular season contest, the Gauchos (10-3-3 overall, 7-1-1 in the Big West) overcame a 1-0 halftime deficit to hand the second-place Mustangs (9-2-4, 4-1-4 Big West) their first conference loss of the year. The win puts Santa Barbara two games ahead of Cal Poly with three remaining, meaning that with another win, UCSB will clinch the Big West Championship for the second straight year.
“Our community responds when challenged and I thought we got challenged a bit and our fans got called out a bit by being told [Cal Poly’s] fans are the best in college soccer,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Normally we get this kind of atmosphere for a playoff game only. To have this in this kind of game helps you going into playoffs because you get a real good sense of what you’re going to be facing.”
Santa Barbara dominated most of the opening half and junior forward Chris Pontius had a golden opportunity in the 24th minute when his shot from 25 yards out was saved by diving junior goalkeeper Eric Branagan-Franco. But in the 38th minute sophomore midfielder Jose Garcia capitalized on one of the few Mustang opportunities to get the scoring started. Garcia collected the ball just outside of the right side of the penalty box and blasted a shot between a pair of UCSB defenders and into the net.
Despite outshooting Cal Poly 8-4 in the opening frame, UCSB came up empty. The second half was another story, as the Gauchos simply caught fire.
In the 60th minute, junior midfielder Eric Avila worked a give-and-go with senior forward Tino Nuñez in the box. Nuñez found Pontius in front of the goal and the Yorba Linda native was somehow able to shake a pair of defenders off his back to net his conference-leading ninth goal this year to knot the game at one.
“I took a bad touch and had to make up for it with a toe-poke at the end to finish it,” Pontius said. “I knew there was a guy on my back, so I didn’t want to let it run. Luckily I got the toe-poke right over the keeper’s shoulder where he couldn’t get it.”
The goal electrified the record-setting crowd and the floodgates opened on the hapless Mustang defense. Minutes later, with tortillas littering the field in front of the stands, senior defender Andy Iro brought down a towering ball amidst a trio of Cal Poly defenders. The three-time All-American was able to use his massive frame to create enough space to turn and touch in his first goal of the season and the eventual game winner.
“It was kind of bouncing around and I had a pretty good touch to bring it down,” Iro said. “It was kind of instinct. I got a glimpse of the goal and got a toe-poke across.”
With all of the momentum after taking the lead, junior midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan launched a rocket shot from 40 yards away that bounced off the cross bar to the feet of sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien. The Big West-points leader buried the rebound, giving him a goal in each of Santa Barbara’s last four contests and giving the Gauchos three goals in just over five minutes.
The Mustangs continued to push UCSB and had a wonderful opportunity to inch closer in the 71st minute when freshman goalkeeper Bryant Rueckner came off his line and was called for a foul in the corner of the penalty box. The first-year keeper dove to his left on the ensuing penalty kick to stop senior defender K.J. Lenehan’s attempt.
The win improves the Gauchos’ home record to 6-1-2 and the team is now riding a four-game winning streak. UCSB got its revenge on the only team to hand it a conference loss, as well as broke the conference attendance record set in the two team’s meeting at Cal Poly.
The Gauchos now hit the road for a pair of conference games before returning home on Nov. 17th for Senior Night, where the community will have a chance to say goodbye to one of the most successful classes in program history.