The UCSB men’s soccer team is sweet yet again.
The 12th-seeded Gauchos (13-3-4 overall) got an early goal from sophomore midfielder Jon Curry to take down Washington 1-0 and advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in the past four years. Santa Barbara’s defensive game plan worked wonders, as the squad posted its sixth shutout of the season in freshman goalkeeper Bryant Rueckner’s first postseason game.
“That was the first time I thought that we put together a defensive plan that was very good and the players followed through on it,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “The players were very picked up tonight. I thought we got great performances from our entire backline.”
Playing in front of a crowd of 9,641 – the second highest total in school history – UCSB’s game-winning goal came in the 10th minute as a result of a poor clearance by the Husky (9-8-4) defense. Sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien’s corner kick was headed just outside the penalty box by Washington’s backline and trickled to the feet of Curry. Moving up from his defensive position for the corner, Curry settled the ball and blasted home a laser from the top of the box, finding the right side of the net to beat freshman keeper Stephen Fung.
“I just saw it come out and took a good first touch and I was pretty much trying to hit it low and hard and on frame,” Curry said. “Its kind of tough because they are going back and trying to head the ball out so I wasn’t expecting them to be rushing at me. I ended up having enough time to set up.”
The Huskies kept battling after falling behind and took control over the next few minutes, but Washington had trouble building its attack against the dominant Gaucho defense. Part of UCSB’s defensive strategy included the insertion of freshman midfielder Jonathan Zerah into the starting lineup because the coaching staff felt he was the best matchup with talented Husky junior midfielder Raphael Cox.
Washington outshot Santa Barbara 13-7 and UCSB mustered only a single shot in the second half while being whistled for being offsides eight times, but Rueckner needed to make only four saves to secure the victory. After an early miscommunication between Rueckner and senior defender Andy Iro nearly put the Gauchos in a 1-0 hole, the defense prevented the Huskies from having any good looks at the goal from inside the penalty box and put the clamps on the Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year in senior forward Ely Allen, who was never able to find a rhythm.
“Most players, especially like Ely [Allen] and Cox, like to float free,” Vom Steeg said. “They like to find themselves in positions in transition where the ball just comes to them and they can play from there. We spent three or four days working on transition and just didn’t give them a lot of time and space.”
The crowd was the largest at Harder Stadium since the squad took down Virginia Commonwealth in the quarterfinals in 2004 and was hurling tortillas and celery on the pitch all game long. Upon the final whistle the fans stormed the field and tried to steal the south goal, making it two days in a row Gaucho fans have rushed the field after the crowd did the same after the men’s basketball team’s last-second win over UNLV on Tuesday night.
“There were times in the second half when we were low on energy, but you look up in the stands and see a lot of people and it gives you the extra push,” Iro said. “Its like that twelfth man on the field kind of thing. You want to win it for them as much your teammates.”
The victory sends the Gauchos to Ohio State to take on the fifth-seeded Buckeyes, who defeated Louisville (11-7-4) 1-0 to advance into the third round. Ohio State brings a 12-game unbeaten streak into the match, surpassing the eight-game streak Santa Barbara is on. UCSB has proven it can win big road playoff games in the past, and with the way the defense is playing it is poised to give the Buckeyes all they can handle.