UCSB vs. Cal Poly at Harder Stadium Wednesday night – sound familiar? In a rematch of last week’s 0-0 tie, the Gauchos and Mustangs face off again in round one of the Big West Tournament.
While the two matches so far between these teams have gone for a combined 210 minutes with only one goal, the UCSB players expect this one to end differently.
“It’s not that we have a hard time scoring against them,” senior forward Nick Perera said. “It’s that we’ve been a big unlucky in each of them. ”
While the UCSB offense has been potent all season, it appears to have tapered off in recent games. In fact, since freshman midfielder Peter McGlynn’s goal in the sixth minute of the UC Irvine game, the Gauchos have been held scoreless. When you do the math, that equates to 304 minutes of soccer since UCSB’s last goal. To be fair, those games were against the toughest teams in the conference, and Santa Barbara had several excellent opportunities each game that could very well have gone in.
“I don’t think that we have to change anything,” Perera said. “We just need to tuck a ball away early and that will change the game completely.
“We can score easily two to three goals per night.”
The Gaucho defense is really the cause for optimism about the team, though. Despite injury trouble and inexperience, the back line has gelled for UCSB in the last few games and has also gone over two whole contests without allowing a goal. This comes as a welcome surprise for a squad that only had two shutouts all season prior to last week and was facing off against very potent offenses in Cal Poly and UC Davis.
“Defense is going to win you games,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “The tie against Cal Poly and the tie against Davis on the road – those are generally pretty good results.”
In potentially the strongest Big West Conference ever, this inaugural conference tournament has some very important implications for its participants. UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara are both likely to make the NCAA tournament regardless of how they fare, but both are fighting for a seeded spot in the top 16 teams. The reason that is significant is that those 16 teams receive a first round bye, as well as a guaranteed home game.
“I think we really need to win the next two games [to get a seed],” Vom Steeg said. “A bye for us would be huge — getting a chance to not have to play that first weekend and giving us three or four days to rest.”
Cal Poly and UC Irvine, meanwhile, are just fighting for their playoff lives. The regular season champion Anteaters face off against Davis in Irvine on Wednesday and hope to secure an NCAA bid with a win. While UCI has only one loss and is ranked above the Gauchos and Aggies in several polls, their strength of schedule is very weak and their Ratings Percentage Index score – which is very important in NCAA consideration – is fairly low. Cal Poly is even further in dire straights and likely needs a win over the Gauchos to be considered for the NCAAs.
However, with a strong Big West and a relatively weak West Coast altogether, it is quite possible the conference will receive an astounding four bids. But it is also a possibility that only Davis and Santa Barbara will make it. With so much riding on the line for all four contestants, this first-ever Big West Tournament should be one to remember.
Kickoff for the UCSB-Cal Poly match is set for 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium, and tickets are $3 for students.