In tonight’s blue-green rivalry game against Cal Poly, pride won’t be the only thing on the line. With only three points separating the four teams in the North Division of the Big West, the No. 16 UCSB men’s soccer team looks to break its current third place tie with the Mustangs and move into one of the two coveted playoff spots.
“The goal Friday night, [whether] the score is 1-0 or 2-1, is to win the game,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Things are very tight and I think you can be safe to predict it will come to the last set of games. When you play at our place, we have to win.”
In the five remaining games, the Gauchos need wins to boost their current 9-2-3 overall and 3-2-1 Big West record. Cal Poly posts an equivalent 3-2-1 conference record and is 8-5-1 overall.
“We’ve said to ourselves [that] we can’t lose anymore and that every game is important,” senior midfielder Fifi Baiden said.“We need to find the back of the net and get a shutout. That’s the mentality we have right now.”
Both teams came up with big wins Tuesday to keep the league standings close. The Mustangs defeated UC Davis, while Santa Barbara handed Big West leader Sacramento State its first conference loss. In UCSB’s 2-0 victory, the Gauchos finally found their offensive rhythm, scoring two goals in the first 10 minutes of play and breaking a two-game scoring drought.
“I think our outside guys, like Ema, were busy early,” senior midfielder Nic Ryan said. “We got them the ball early and we got good service. We were lucky to get on the end of a couple and get ahead early, which we haven’t done in a while.” With a lack of scoring in the past, UCSB has switched formations, moving into a 4-2-3-1, which gives the outside backs freedom to push forward and get into the attack. That allows Santa Barbara to use one of its big offensive weapons in freshman defender Ema Boateng, who ranks third on the team in scoring with four goals.
“A couple ways of scoring when you face nine to 10 guys (playing defense), [which] is what we see in every game, is to pass really well and get around the corners,” Vom Steeg said. “So, we made an effort to get Ema the ball and we’ll stay after that.”
Allowing the Gauchos to switch into the more offensively minded line-up has been the return of senior midfielder Machael David. In David’s first game back from injury Tuesday, David assisted the first goal. Combined with Baiden, the two create a strong holding midfield, allowing more players to push up. “[David] provides a lot of the energy and he’s an emotional leader,” Vom Steeg said. “He does a lot of the running, which allows us to win the midfield and move forward. He’s a key piece to our ability to win games and move forward.”
While UCSB ranks second in league in shots and goals, averaging 16.71 and 1.93 per game, respectively, this game may come down to defense and who scores first. The Gauchos concede just .79 goals per game, second in the Big West, while the Mustangs are right behind, allowing one goal per game.
“I don’t think it’ll be a high scoring game, so I think that the team that scores first [will win],” Vom Steeg said. “For us, the key is to get a goal in that first half, even if [that means going] in 1-1 at halftime. We feel if we get two balls in every game, with the way we defend, we will win every game.”
Leading the attack for the Gauchos all season has been Ryan, who ranks third in the league in points with seven goals and one assist.
“I think Nic Ryan is stepping up like Luis Silva did for us last year,” Baiden said. “He’s a very creative player and very intelligent. We have to make sure he’s up the field more and not coming back to play defense.”
On the other side for Cal Poly is junior forward McKenzie Pridham, who ranks second in the Big West in points with eight goals and is second is goals per game with a .57 average.
“[Pridham] plays a position that is a really good match-up for us,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s [their] point forward and we have two really good centerbacks and in Welsh and Brockway. We will have two strong, physical defenders on him.”
Kickoff against rival Cal Poly is set for 8 p.m. The game will also be broadcast live on Fox Soccer Channel.