The playoffs are here and the time has come for the defending champion #7 UCSB men’s soccer team to truly begin its title defense.
The twelfth-seeded Gauchos (12-3-4 overall) host unseeded Washington in the second round of the NCAA Tournament tonight at 7 at Harder Stadium, where Santa Barbara is 7-0-0 all-time in the postseason. UCSB comes into the match undefeated in its last seven contests and has not been on the losing end of any match since Oct. 17, playing its best soccer of the year at the most opportune time in its quest to return to a third College Cup in the past four years.
“Whenever we’ve been able to put the whole team [on the field], we’ve played well,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “The key thing for us will be not giving up something early and having to play catch up. There is no doubt that Wednesday will be our hardest game of the season.”
Senior forward Ely Allen sent the Huskies (9-7-4) past Portland and into round two, netting a penalty kick in the 86th minute after freshman midfielder Matt Van Houten was pulled down in the penalty box. The victory pushed Washington’s unbeaten streak to four, as the squad finished in fifth place in the Pac-10 and earned an at-large bid to the tournament. The Huskies have plenty of experience facing quality opponents this season, defeating NCAA Tournament participants Southern Methodist University and New Mexico early in the year.
Washington was dealt several injury blows early in the 2007 campaign, losing sophomore goalkeeper Rylan Hawkins in the season’s fourth game with a broken nose and chipped tooth. Also missing from the lineup is senior forward Kevin Forrest, whose season ended with leg injury after 11 games. Forrest, the team’s leading scorer last season, had 15 points at the time of injury and still finished second on the squad in the category. Carrying the load offensively in Forrest’s absence has been Allen, who has tallied 12 goals and 26 points on his way to becoming the Pac-10’s co-Player of the Year after leading the conference in both areas.
“I’ve played with Ely [Allen] since I was 15 years old and he’s a [Major League Soccer] type of guy and will go pro after this season,” sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien said. I’ve never played against him on a level like this, but he’s a great player and the fans are going to be in for a great game.”
Pacing the Santa Barbara offense all season long has been junior forward Chris Pontius and O’Brien, earning the Big West’s Offensive Player of the Year and Midfielder of the Year honors, respectively. The pair topped the conference’s scoring charts and has combined for 47 points for an explosive Gaucho offense. The matchup with the Huskies will be a bit of a reunion for O’Brien, who hails from Tacoma, Wash., and played with many members of the Washington squad before his collegiate career.
“I know almost the whole team, so it’s going to be good playing against them,” O’Brien said. “I know how they play, but they kind of know how I play so it goes both ways.”
Reaching the stretch run of his career in a UCSB uniform is junior midfielder and All-Big West First Team honoree Eric Avila, who was convinced by Vom Steeg to stick around for his third year, but will depart after the season to play professionally in Argentina. Avila has notched eight assists – good for second on the team – and four goals this season after netting the title-clinching goal against UCLA last year.
While the Huskies have experience in the postseason after reaching the second round a season ago, the Harder Stadium crowd will provide a foreign environment for Washington. Last season, 8,784 fans turned out for UCSB’s quarterfinal match against Northwestern, and a school-record crowd of 11,215 saw the Gauchos down Virginia Commonwealth University in during the 2004 playoffs. These figures dwarf the 1,125 fans that witnessed the Huskies’ first-round victory, and the largest road crowd Washington has played in front of this season is 2,820.
“[The crowd] is going to be a huge advantage because in that starting line up against Portland, they had five freshmen, including a freshman goalkeeper,” Vom Steeg said. “I thought I saw a lot of nerves against Portland. The crowd, combined with five or six young players, we’re hoping, will have a dramatic effect.”
Six seniors will suit up in what could be their final contest in front of the Harder Stadium crowd, but history is on the Gauchos’ side with their dominant postseason performances at home in the past. UCSB is 6-1-3 at Harder Stadium this season, the lone loss came in the home opener on Sept. 2, and the squad is poised for yet another deep postseason run.