Off to its best start in conference play since 2009, the No. 3 UCSB men’s soccer team, leaders atop the Big West North Division will travel to UC Davis on Saturday in its first matchup against a division foe.
Santa Barbara enters Saturday with a 9-4 overall and a 4-0 Big West record after winning five-straight matches with a chance to extend its two game lead over Davis who sits second in the North Division at 6-6-1 overall and 2-2 in conference.
“We just have to find a way to win the game; we don’t care how it happens,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Ever since the New Mexico and Stanford games where we found ways to lose, we’ve matured a little bit, gotten better. In these last five games, we’ve found a way to win the game.”
After facing a difficult schedule early in the season, the Gauchos have finally found their groove, squeaking out a pair of road victories last week including a 2-1 overtime victory over then No. 4 Northridge and a double overtime 2-1 win at UC Irvine.
“What you need to appreciate is that the Big West schedule is not kind to us,” Vom Steeg said. “Now we have four out of the next five games on the road, and in my opinion, they are four of the hardest places to play, not just in the Big West, but in the country.”
Allowing only eight goals in 11 starts this season, freshman goalkeeper Josh McNeely has aided a stout Gaucho defense that has allowed one goal or less during the five-game winning streak, with three of those matches resulting in shutouts.
McNeely ranks first in the conference in save percentage (0.805), shutouts (four) and goal average allowed (0.69). Two weeks ago McNeely was named Big West Defensive Player of the Week, an honor awarded to senior defender Peter Schmetz on Monday, as Gauchos have owned the award the past two weeks.
“From the start our goal has been to win our conference and after that the goal would be to win the conference tournament,” McNeely said. “Going beyond that, getting to the final four and far in playoffs would be a big step for the program.”
Headlining the Gaucho offense is senior forward Achille Campion, who leads the team and ranks tied for fifth in the conference with five goals scored on the season. Senior midfielder Goffin Boyoko ranks right behind Campion with four goals this season.
Aiding the two seniors are a pair of freshmen in midfielder Drew Murphy and forward Ismaila Jome. Murphy’s six assists this season rank tied for first in the Big West, while Jome’s five tie for fourth.
The Aggies enter Saturday fresh off a 2-0 victory over Riverside, a win that ended a two-game skid in conference play.
“The stats kind of tell it all for Davis. What that tells you is they can beat anybody … but then they can also lose to anybody,” Vom Steeg said. “They don’t give up a lot and they don’t get a lot and that’s a recipe for a low-scoring game, which we have been fortunate in the last two games to find a way to win. Hopefully we can do that again on Saturday.”
Davis, a team known for low-scoring affairs, has scored a mere 10 goals in 13 games this season, tied for second-fewest in the Big West. Similarly, the Aggies have allowed only 11 goals this season, tied with UCSB for the fewest in the conference.
Santa Barbara ranks third in the Big West with 20 goals scored this season as they struggled to put the ball in the back of the net early in the season. In the last four games, however, the Gauchos have scored at least two goals in every game, once putting up three in a victory over Fullerton.
One key to the game may be how effectively the Gauchos can attack a stout Aggies’ defense and put a ball between the posts. Factoring in Davis’ inability to score and the Gauchos’ knack for shutting opponents down, Santa Barbara may be on its way to taking a three-game lead in the Big West north if it can score an early goal on Saturday.
“We are now playing the teams in our own division and these are now six-point swings,” Vom Steeg said. “Either we jump ahead three games or we go back down to one game.”
Saturday’s kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Aggie Soccer Field.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of October 17th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.