Playing in the conference championship game in front of a sellout crowd is something that players dream about. For the UCSB men’s soccer team, that dream quickly became a nightmare against a fired-up UC Irvine squad Saturday night.
The Gauchos came out flat and Irvine capitalized, registering four unanswered first-half goals and plastering a visibly tired Santa Barbara group 4-2.
“Sometimes it’s just not your night,” senior forward Chris Pontius said. “These things happen, and it’s just too bad it happened in the Big West Championship game.”
Calling it ‘not UCSB’s night’ may well be an understatement. The Anteaters scored on their first four shots, registering an insurmountable 4-0 lead by the 40th minute. While the Gauchos played better in the second half, scoring two goals and surrendering none, they were never able to make the game competitive.
“Our defense wasn’t organized,” junior forward David Walker said. “They were very quiet out there, and that’s where you have to be the loudest and communicating the best.”
The Gauchos were clearly fatigued as well, having come off five matches against top competition in a little over two weeks. The last three of those games went all the way through double overtime.
“Coming off playing over 300 minutes in a week and a half, it’s hard to get energy out there,” Walker said.
Pontius concurred. “We’re physically beat up right now,” he said. “This week off is going to be very beneficial. This is what happens every time at the end of the year, especially with a lot of young players. Right now we just have to make sure we get everyone back that we can [for the NCAA tournament].”
Irvine started the scoring in the 10th minute, when sophomore forward Amani Walker found senior midfielder Rafael Macedo on a cross into the box, which Macedo promptly put away. The Gauchos are not strangers to early deficits, having come from behind in several games this season, but the Anteaters refused to back down.
Just seven minutes later, Walker got on the stat sheet yet again, this time as a goal-scorer. Walker received a throw-in from sophomore midfielder Gray Bailey inside the box, and headed it down and toward the goal. The shot was well placed, bouncing into the side netting past the Gaucho defense and freshman keeper Kristopher Minton, and all of a sudden UCI led 2-0.
Things just got worse from there for UCSB, as Macedo and junior midfielder Irving Garcia would both score on crosses in the 27th and 40th minutes, respectively. By half time the score was 4-0, and the Gauchos were just playing for respectability.
Santa Barbara did make some strides towards that goal in the second frame, scoring twice on penalty kicks. Sophomore forward Bongomin Otii set up both goals, muscling his way into the box and drawing fouls on each occasion. For the first penalty, in the 76th minute, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg opted to give the kick to Pontius, who capitalized with a roller to the left side. On the second, which occurred with just under a minute to go, senior forward Nick Perera took the kick and put it in the same spot as Pontius. Anteater freshman keeper Andrew Fontein guessed incorrectly each time.
Fontein, for his part, did a solid job shutting down the Gaucho attack all night. The keeper had nine saves, as UCSB actually out-shot Irvine 20-13, and even 6-4 in the all-important first half.
With the loss, the Gauchos hand the conference crown over to UC Irvine, who are both regular season and tournament Big West champions. The Anteaters celebrated with their fans after the win, chanting “Olé Olé” before the trophy presentation ceremony. Meanwhile, the enormous Gaucho contingent at the game found itself searching for answers.
Attendance was 1,832, which was standing-room only at Anteater Stadium, and UCSB fans made up well over a third of that mark, if not half. In a game that was never even close, the most exciting action may actually have been the verbal sparring between the student sections. And while the Gaucho Locos clearly won that particular war, all the UCI fans had to do was point at the scoreboard to deliver the UCSB faithful a harsh dose of reality.
For now, UCSB (10-6-5) must wait for today’s NCAA selection show at 3 p.m. to find out where and when they will play next. UCI (14-1-6) is assured a spot in the tournament after the win, and fellow Big West foe UC Davis will likely make it in as well.