Rare are the opportunities when a team has a chance to make a statement with one victory and establish itself as the team to beat in its conference. The UCSB men’s soccer team will have such an opportunity tomorrow night when they travel to face No. 4 Cal State Northridge in a matchup of the top two teams in the Big West.
After starting conference play with two shutout victories, the Gauchos (7-4 overall, 2-0 Big West) enter a crucial weekend in conference play, facing Northridge on Friday before heading to UC Irvine for a Sunday afternoon match.
“[A victory] would be very important. Northridge is a good team. Last year they upset us at our home, and that’s what we’re looking to do over there,” senior midfielder Fifi Baiden said. “These two wins give us the confidence to go in really hard against them, so I’m pretty confident we’ll go and get a win at their place.”
Santa Barbara will have its hands full against a Northridge offensive attack that is tied for second in the nation with 28 goals scored. The Matadors enter Friday’s contest with a 10-1 overall record and 2-0 mark in conference play.
Friday’s matchup will feature the only undefeated teams in the Big West, as the two squads will fight for early supremacy in the conference. Northridge opened conference play with victories over Sacramento State and UC Davis, while Santa Barbara defeated Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside.
“It’s going to be a huge game because they’ve done really well this year. They’re ranked Top 10,” freshman forward Ismaila Jome said. “To get a win against them would put us in a great position to get a playoff birth for the NCAA tournament. We’re just looking forward; it’s a great way to start the conference so heading into it our confidence will be boosted.”
Both the Matadors and Gauchos enter the match with three consecutive shutout victories, with Northridge holding the top goal scoring team in the conference and UCSB maintaining the top defensive team with only nine goals allowed all season. Something has to give come tomorrow night.
Freshman goalkeeper Josh McNeely, fresh off a Big West Defensive Player of the Week award, has posted three straight shutouts for UCSB and can only hope he and the rest of the backline can reign in the dangerous offensive attack of the Matadors.
“During the season, we play games that we lose 1-0 and we do the best we can. So the coaching staff told us the only way we’re going to win a game is to have a shutout and that is reflected in our games right now.” Baiden said. “That’s the goal for us now, getting a shutout. If we don’t score, we make sure the other team doesn’t score, so that’s been our main focus.”
That Northridge offense features the second and third leading goal-scorers in the conference in junior forward Sagi Lev-Ari (eight goals) and senior forward Brian Behrad (six goals).
UCSB is no slouch offensively, however, featuring two seniors, midfielder Goffin Boyoko and forward Achille Campion, whose four goals are tied for seventh in the conference. Jome also ranks tied for third in the Big West with five assists on the season.
When the Gauchos finish what is sure to be an emotional game against Northridge, they must immediately turn their focus to an up-and-down Irvine squad that enters the contest with a 6-3-2 overall record and 1-1 mark in conference.
The Anteaters began conference play with a loss at UC Davis before rebounding with a victory against Sacramento State on Sunday. Irvine will also host Cal Poly Friday night before facing UCSB Sunday.
This weekend looks to be a pivotal one for the Gauchos, with the match against Northridge looming especially large.
“It’s as big as any game in conference, there’s no bigger game,” Campion said. “Let’s make a statement and go beat them.”
Friday’s match is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start time at Matador Soccer Field while Sunday’s game against Irvine has a 4 p.m. kickoff at Anteater Stadium.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of October 10th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.