The inaugural Big West Tournament for men’s soccer draws to a close Saturday, and the Gauchos have the opportunity to be crowned its first champion. They just need to get through UC Irvine.
In a game rife with NCAA tournament implications, UCSB will need to cool down an Irvine squad that could not be hotter. The Anteaters are unbeaten in their last nine games, with wins over three of the top teams in the conference — SB, Davis and Northridge — in that span.
The Gauchos, meanwhile, finally broke out of a 370-minute scoring drought against Cal Poly last night, registering two goals on 30 shots against the Mustangs. However, Cal Poly scored twice as well, and it took UCSB penalty kicks to advance to the tournament finale.
Though Santa Barbara advanced, a penalty kick shootout is technically a tie, meaning that the Gauchos are in fact winless in their last four games. That does not bode well when hitting the road to face an opponent that some polls have ranked in the top 10 teams in the country.
These squads split their regular season matches, with each team winning at the other’s home field. The Gauchos won the first match, coming from behind to best the Anteaters 2-1. In fact, UCSB scored the game-winner while shorthanded, as freshman midfielder Peter McGlynn was sent off early in the second half for two quick yellow cards.
The rematch at Harder Stadium was decidedly different. The Gauchos came on strong when McGlynn scored his first career goal in the sixth minute. Irvine would not go down easily, though, as the Anteaters fought right back with two goals late in the first half. While the Gauchos controlled for much of the second frame, they were unable to find the net, and Irvine added the nail in the coffin with just a minute to go.
Irvine is led by senior midfielder Matt Murphy, who has a balanced 11 goals and seven assists on the season. Sophomore forward Spencer Thompson and junior forward Irving Garcia round out a potent Anteater attack, while freshman goalkeeper Andrew Fontein has done a phenomenal job in the net with four shutouts.
The Gauchos, meanwhile, have been somewhat of a one-man show on offense for the majority of the season with senior forward Chris Pontius carrying much of the load. However, Wednesday’s match featured an explosion of offense from fellow senior Nick Perera, who scored Santa Barbara’s two goals and had several chances at a hat trick.
The winner of this match gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, although both teams are likely to be included regardless. UCSB is hoping for a top 16 — or even top eight — seed, which would guarantee a first round bye and one or two home games, respectively. The Gauchos were ranked ninth in the most recent Ratings Percentage Index release, but a win over the Anteaters could potentially improve their standing.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at UC Irvine.