Comebacks have become the norm for the #9 UCSB men’s soccer team and this time, the club exorcised some demons in the process.
After falling behind 2-0 early in the first half the Gauchos (12-3-3 overall, 9-1-1 in the Big West) rallied for a 3-2 victory over conference rival Cal State Northridge, clinching the outright Big West title after securing at least a tie for the conference crown last Saturday. The triumph ended a five-game losing streak at Matador Soccer Field and was the first UCSB win in Northridge since 2000, avenging last year’s 5-0 CSUN win.
“When you set out at the start of the year there are certain things you want to accomplish,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “When the schedule comes out you look at certain games. This was one of them, especially the way we lost last year.”
The Matadors (6-6-6, 2-4-4 Big West) – the only school besides Santa Barbara to win a Big West championship over the past seven seasons – took control right off the bat, opening the scoring in the eighth minute. Junior defender Ben Cox began a counterattack that was finished by junior midfielder Devin Deldó for the early advantage. Deldó’s antics hurt the Gauchos again later in the first half, serving a ball for senior defender Sean Franklin, who beat freshman keeper Bryant Rueckner for a 2-0 lead just 22 minutes in.
UCSB overcame one-goal deficits in its three prior matches and began the comeback trail just before the end of the opening half. Junior midfielder Eric Avila lofted a ball from the left side for junior forward Chris Pontius, who headed it past junior keeper Kevin Guppy to cut the deficit to one in the 45th minute. The duo came off the bench in the 24th minute in a new-look lineup that featured starts from senior forward Tony Chinakwe and junior striker Nick Perera.
“You feel safe when you have a 2-0 lead,” Vom Steeg said. “More than it fired us up I think it deflated them a little bit. With the chances we had in the first half, I knew we would get plenty more opportunities.”
Avila, a Hermann Trophy Candidate, quickly went back to work to open the second half, finding the head of senior forward Tino Nuñez, who netted the equalizer for his fifth goal. With the game squared at two, the Gauchos continued to attack and were rewarded with a penalty kick in the 69th minute when Pontius was dragged down in the penalty box. The conference’s leading goal-scorer blasted the kick home for a 3-2 lead, increasing his total to 11.
With the pair of goals, Pontius overtook teammate sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien for the Big West scoring lead with 24 points to O’Brien’s 23. Avila notched his seventh and eighth assists in one of his most dominating performances of the year after a quiet performance last time out.
“It definitely was a great game on [Avila’s] part,” Vom Steeg said. “We made the decision not to start him and Pontius, which I thought meant they could finish the game and it worked out. I thought if we went a different direction to start the game things would be different in the second half.”