While school just began for students at UCSB, the No. 3 UCSB men’s soccer team is already starting league.
At 6-0-2, the Gauchos will look to remain undefeated as they head on a two-game road trip, facing No. 24 UC Riverside tonight and Cal State Fullerton on Sunday.
“We know that everyone is 0-0,” senior midfielder Nic Ryan said. “It’s a clean slate. It doesn’t matter what happened in the preseason, but [this is] our chance to make the Big West tournament and the NCAA.”
The Highlanders, UCSB’s second-ranked opponent they face on the season, currently holds a 7-1 record and enters conference play having set Division I era school records for best start (7-0-0) and longest winning streak.
“Our league is very, very competitive,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “The energy on the field and the intensity completely picks up.”
The Gauchos head to Riverside coming off a 1-1 tie with No. 9 ranked UCLA and a 1-0 shutout against Harvard.
Santa Barbara is one of only 12 teams in the nation not to suffer a loss so far this season and is the last remaining undefeated team in the West.
“We’re feeling very confident,being undefeated” junior midfielder Fifi Baiden said. “The last time the team experienced that kind of winning streak was like 2004.” Both teams love to attack — UC Riverside and UCSB are tied for first in the Big West and rank tenth in the nation with 2.5 goals a game. In each of the last two games, though, UCSB was held to one goal per game.
While UCSB has depended on a high scoring offense to win games, the Gauchos are focusing on their defense this weekend, looking for two shutouts.
Thus far, UCSB’s defense has looked tenacious, holding teams to a .78 goals against average, good enough for second place in the Big West. The backline is anchored by sophomore goalkeeper Austin Mansker, who was named Big West Defensive Player of the Week.
“I think the key starts with [Riverside’s] set pieces because in my experience, we’ve given up at least one goal over the last couple years coming off a set piece, a free kick, or a corner kick,” Vom Steeg said. “They also use their counterattack. They’ll take off with a lot of speed and they create opportunities to score off of your bad play.”
Attempting to hand UCSB its first loss will be a talented and balanced Riverside frontline. The Highlanders have a trio of juniors who have at least three goals on the campaign, with junior midfielder Aaron Long leading the attack with four goals and one assist.
“They’ve gotten goals from a lot of different players,” Vom Steeg said. “These teams, whenever you play on the road, feed off their crowd and that comes from goals. We know if we shut those two teams down, we can go get a couple goals in these games.”
Overall, Santa Barbara leads the series against the Highlanders at 24-4-1, but two losses against Riverside last season have returning players looking for redemption.
“We know we can’t take them lightly because of what they did last year,” Ryan said. “But we want to let them know that’s not going to happen again.”
Then on Sunday, the Gauchos will face off against a 4-6 Fullerton squad that heads into the game on a three game winning streak, which snapped a three game skid. The Titans will face Cal Poly Friday night before hosting the Gauchos.
UCSB owns the overall series record at 28-3-2 and has won the last four against the Titans.
“Fullerton is almost the opposite of Riverside,” Vom Steeg said. ”The surface is usually good and it’s a big field. They throw all caution to the wind and will attack you with a lot of players.”
UCSB will have to watch out for senior forward Jesse Escalante, who ranks second in the Big West in points after totaling six goals and one assist so far.
“[Fullerton has] some individually talented players, but they leave themselves open in the back,” Vom Steeg said. “We’ve scored a lot of goals down there, but we’ve given them up too, so we have to be disciplined. If we can keep them off the board, we can win.”
Kickoff tonight is set for 8 p.m. at UC Riverside Soccer Stadium followed by a 7:30 p.m. start at Titan Stadium on Sunday.