For the first time this season, a loss for #2 UCSB would mean more than just disappointment. It would mean, in all likelihood, the end of Gaucho soccer until next season. Ahead of tonight’s rematch of its 2-1 loss at the hands of Cal Poly two weeks ago, it is clear what the team is thinking as they prepare for the Big West Tournament semifinals.
[media-credit id=20124 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“It’s what we wanted from the get- go,” sophomore forward Sam Garza said. “We went down to their place, didn’t play well and paid for it. It’s good to get another crack at these guys, show them it was a fluke and that we mean business.”
In the teams’ last meeting on Cal Poly’s home field, the Gauchos (11-4-3 overall, 7-2-1 Big West) were unable to find their offensive rhythm, losing a heartbreaker in overtime despite three shots on goal from team scoring leader Garza and a combined five more from his teammates. Now, back on its larger home pitch, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg’s squad gets a chance for redemption.
“We’re excited about playing this game,” Vom Steeg said. “You don’t always get a chance to follow up a loss by playing the same team again so quickly. It’s not just the field and its dimensions, but we play well at home and we should be a team that’s fired up to play after earning the right to play this game at our place.”
Harder Stadium has been one of UCSB’s strongest weapons this year, and the second-seeded Gauchos will look to extend an 11-game undefeated streak against Cal Poly there. They will have to do so without sophomore midfielder Machael David, who will sit out tonight’s match after sustaining his fifth yellow card of the season against UC Riverside Saturday. David, who is vital to the team as a ball handler and an aggressive midfield presence, has been absent for just 19 minutes in UCSB’s 18 matches so far this season.
“It really hurts because my season will be done if we don’t win,” David said. “But the guys are fired up, and we know it’s a do or die game. It comes down to who wants it the most and I think our guys want it the most. That is why I am crossing my fingers so hard to get the win, no matter how we do it, to go and win the conference.”
Losing a workhorse like David forces Vom Steeg to make some adjustments to a team that has consistently played with the same game plan of scoring early and often. The Gauchos have outshot their opponents in every game this season, including the Oct. 27 loss to the Mustangs, 23-13.
“We want to just stay with what’s gotten us where we’re at right now and not change too much,” Vom Steeg said. “The problem is that we did lose Machael, so that does force us to make some changes. But we’ve had lots of different players step in at different times, so I’m confident whoever steps in will do well for us.”
One certainty is that the playoff atmosphere at Harder will be electric. The nationally televised game at Cal Poly brought in 8,125 people, with the teams’ first meeting of the season in Santa Barbara drawing 6,057. Now, with an automatic NCAA tournament berth at stake for the Big West Tournament winner, the pressure will be on for both sides.
“You know it could be your last game, that you’re going to get a team’s best,” Garza said. “Nothing’s set in stone, you’ve got to come out and play hard the whole game. The playoff atmosphere will be intense, I can’t wait.”
Kickoff tonight will be at 7 p.m. The winner of the match moves on to Saturday’s final round of the Big West Tournament to play the winner of tonight’s other match, Cal State Fullerton at UC Irvine.