This weekend holds a couple of firsts for the No. 4 UCSB men’s soccer team. Not only will the Gauchos play their first games at home since the arrival of students for fall quarter, but they will also play their first conference home matches when they host UC Irvine tonight and Cal State Northridge Sunday.
At 7-0-3 overall, and 1-0-1 in the Big West, Santa Barbara ranks second in the Big West behind Sacramento State. The perfect start is the best since 2004 when the Gauchos went 12 games without a loss.
“We’re happy to be undefeated, but we have two big games at home and we need two wins,” junior midfielder Fifi Baiden said.
UCSB will also be defending a near-perfect home record of 3-0-1. With six of its next seven games at home, the Gauchos should take advantage of playing at Harder Stadium.
“It’s always fun to play on your home soil,” Baiden said. “You get the fans behind you. Whatever you have to do to get a win, you do.”
In tonight’s matchup against rival UC Irvine, Santa Barbara will once again be looking for redemption. The Anteaters won both matches last season and are back-to-back Big West Champions, stealing the title from the Gauchos both times.
Yet this year the Anteaters are struggling. The team holds a 3-7-1 overall record and is currently 0-2 in conference. Having lost five straight games, the Anteaters are hungry for a win, desperately needing to gain some type of momentum. “They’re a team that I think is fighting for their season on Friday night,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “They’ve lost two league games and they’re hoping in one game they can turn things around. For them, that has to happen on Friday night.”
This week, the focus has returned to the offense for the Gauchos. While UCSB was shut out for the fifth time this season last weekend against Cal State Fullerton, Santa Barbara has plenty of offensive weapons.
Senior midfielder Nic Ryan ranks second in the Big West in game-winning goals with three and junior forward Dom Sarle is tied for second in conference in assists with four.
“The key [against Irvine] is our offense,” Baiden said. “This week’s practice was about getting chances in the final third and being aggressive. We also have to play to our playmakers.”
On Sunday, UCSB will see one of the tougher teams in conference. Northridge begins the weekend at 7-4 overall and ranks third in the Big West with a 1-1 conference record.
Like the Gauchos, the Matadors are an offensive-minded team. Northridge puts up the most shots in the Big West with nearly 19 per game. They also average 2.18 goals per game, just slightly behind UCSB, which scores 2.3 goals per game.
“The key to their success has been their ability to score goals,” Vom Steeg said. “They have at least two players that if you give them an open shot, they can hit the ball very well and they’re comfortable around the net.”
In fact, Northridge currently holds two of the best scorers in the Big West. Sophomore forward Sagi Lev-Ari leads the Big West in goals with nine and sophomore forward Edwin Rivas is tied for second in points with six goals and one assist.
“If those players get isolated or are left open, then they can hurt you,” Vom Steeg said. “Defensively, our emphasis will be on knowing where they are and [making sure] they’re picked up so that they have to work hard to get the ball and create opportunities.”
Kickoff against UC Irvine is set for 7 p.m. tonight. Sunday’s game against Northridge is scheduled for 5 p.m.