It’s that special time of year again. This Saturday, the No. 19 UCSB men’s soccer team will host rival No. 20 Cal Poly at Harder Stadium as the two teams play for the second time in seven days.
The Gauchos will be hungry for revenge after their trip to San Luis Obispo last weekend resulted in a 3-2 double overtime loss.
“The game became a little less pretty [last] Saturday,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Cal Poly has a problem dealing with our physicality up front. We just have to fight and find a way to win.”
Both sides are separated by just one point in the standings, with UCSB at 10-5-1 overall and 5-2 in Big West coming off a close win over UC Davis yesterday. The Mustangs picked up a big win themselves yesterday over Sac St. to stay just behind Santa Barbara at 9-3-3 overall and 4-1-2 in conference.
For those who weren’t there last year when the Gauchos hosted the Mustangs in October 2014, the annual Blue-Green matchup drew an audience of 14,345 crazy fans, the second-largest campus crowd in NCAA history.
That number could very well go even higher this time around, with both top-20 sides generating a high level of buzz so far this season.
“That was a big part of my recruitment,” sophomore defender Fuad Adeniyi said. “I’ve been dreaming about playing in front of [large crowds], especially our fans, who we all know and love. They all pump us up for the game. It’s really, really good playing in front of them.”
Expectations were high for the Gauchos coming into the year after having finished with a No. 1 seed in each of the past two seasons, and they have not disappointed in 2015.
Junior Nick DePuy hasn’t been able to stay out of the headlines over the past year, currently leading the nation in game-winning goals with seven and ranking second overall with 12.
That’s not too bad of a stat line for a player that didn’t even play forward until midway through his sophomore season.
DePuy isn’t the only Gaucho making noise in the stat department this season. Freshman forward Geoffrey Acheampong has been absolutely crucial for his team, tied for the Big West lead in assists with seven in just his freshman year while picking up a point in eight of the Gauchos’ last 11 games.
Despite a perfect 4-0 start to conference play, the Big West has since learned that UCSB is most certainly not unbeatable. A terribly disappointing 5-2 loss at Sac St. last Wednesday ended a five-game winning streak for Santa Barbara just three days before it suffered its second straight loss at Cal Poly.
Those two losses were not all negative for UCSB, however, as they saw the return of junior left back Ismaila Jome. After missing nearly eight full games with an ankle sprain, the former Big West Freshman of the Year showed just how important he is by scoring in each of his first two games back.
“I think the losses affected us in a good way,” sophomore left back Randy Mendoza said. “We were on a high when we were 4-0, and I think it’s making us hungry and realize that nothing is going to be given to us.”
Defensive issues have become somewhat of a plague for the Gauchos since the beginning of Big West play. Through their first six conference games, they conceded 11 goals, just one less than the conference’s worst defenses over that span.
Leading the UCSB defense is a player who is no stranger to the Blue-Green rivalry in goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg, son of long-time UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg.
The freshman, who has spent time playing for the US men’s national soccer team (USMNT) U-20 squads, has had a solid year, going 10-4 as a starter and ranking fifth in the conference in goals against average at 1.32.
“I’ve been in the stands for quite a few [UCSB-Cal Poly games] — some wins, some losses,” the younger Vom Steeg said. “It’s a real emotional game.”
With three games still to play this season, the Mustangs have already surpassed their mark of eight wins in 2014.
It’s no surprise that Cal Poly has been able to turn things around this year behind first year head coach Steve Sampson, who boasts an incredible resume that few coaches at this level, if any, could rival.
Sampson has coached at virtually every competitive level, leading Santa Clara to a national championship in 1989, managing the US Men’s National Team in the 1998 World Cup, leading the Costa Rican national team to its highest ever FIFA world ranking of 17 in 2004 and winning both the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup in 2004 with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Mustangs have lost just one game out of their last nine, picking up their biggest win of the year just five days ago at home against UCSB.
After a thrilling first half in which both teams notched two goals, a sold-out crowd of 11,075 was forced to wait until the 104th minute before Cal Poly’s junior defender Kody Wakasa scored his first career goal on a corner kick, sending UCSB to its second straight Big West loss and bringing Cal Poly just one point out of first.
The Gauchos managed to dominate in the shot department, outshooting the Mustangs 23-12, but Cal Poly’s senior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton was able to make seven big saves to help his team to victory.
Hamilton currently sits at second in the Big West with a 1.01 goals against average.
“Saturday was really tough. I thought we deserved to win and with seven minutes left they score off a corner kick. It was a pretty crazy environment,” Justin Vom Steeg said. “I’m really looking forward to this Saturday to get some revenge and hopefully we can show them up with a big victory in front of our home crowd.”
The large audience tied for the 12th largest regular season crowd in NCAA history, but will likely be even bigger this Saturday at Harder Stadium, which seats 17,000. The Blue-Green rivalry is considered the greatest rivalry in college soccer for a reason, as evidenced by the fact that the two sides have provided 12 of the 18 largest audiences in college soccer since 1980.
Looking at how the two teams have fared against one another over the years, UCSB has come away with the advantage at 45-18-7. However, the Mustangs have done well to flip the script in recent years, outdueling the Gauchos to the tune of a 4-3-2 record through their last nine meetings.
While many Gaucho supporters are looking at this storied rivalry’s upcoming installment as a chance for revenge, Jome summed up his team’s mindset in two words: “Just win.” Regardless of all the hype, statistics and big names involved in this game, we’ll just have to wait for Saturday to see what happens.
The second Blue-Green rivalry matchup of 2015 will kick off at 7 p.m. this Saturday at Harder Stadium.
A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 13 of October 22, 2015’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.