For the first time since 2011, the No. 17 UCSB men’s soccer team will be playing in the NCAA Tournament Third Round, traveling to take on No. 2 Clemson this Sunday at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN3 with a live audio stream being provided by ucsbgauchos.com.
A 1-0 win at home over South Carolina in the second round put the Gauchos at a record of 14-6-2 overall, 7-2-1 Big West on the year. The Tigers are coming off a convincing 5-2 victory over Elon, the most goals they’ve scored in the tournament in 17 years. They enter with one of the nation’s best records at 16-2-2 overall, 6-1-1 ACC.
“We will be tested on Sunday. I’m excited for this group to show up down in Clemson,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “In my opinion, [Clemson has] been consistently one of the top four teams in the country all year. The ACC is the best conference and that team is the best team in the ACC.”
Similar to the Gauchos, despite being the best team in their respective conference, the Tigers were unable to come away as conference champs, falling 2-0 to No. 3 Syracuse in the ACC Semifinals. The loss was just Clemson’s second of the season and ended a run of nine straight wins and 13 straight undefeated.
UCSB has saved its best soccer for the most important part of the year, particularly on the defensive end. The Gauchos have gone undefeated in six out of their last seven games. Their only loss during that stretch came to Cal State Fullerton in the Big West Championship, in a game many, including Vom Steeg, have called their best performance of the season.
“Hopefully we’ll show a lot of the same things we showed in the five game streak we had to close out the season and a bit of what we saw against Fullerton. I thought that was one of our best games of the year offensively and defensively,” senior defender Duncan Backus said. “It’s just a matter of putting the ball in the back of the net. Hopefully we find our scoring touch again. We can be a very exciting and dangerous team in the tournament.”
In the last four games, Santa Barbara seems to have solved the defensive issues which plagued it at times during the season. The Gauchos have found success since moving around a pair of All-Big West First Teamers in Backus from right back to the defensive midfield and sophomore midfielder Kevin Feucht up into a more attacking role. Junior Andy Perez has made the move from right attacking mid to right back, doing everything that has been asked of him defensively while still aiding the offense on the break.
“We were having trouble defensively. I just knew that if we went into postseason bleeding goals like we were, we weren’t going to go very far,” Vom Steeg said. “We’ve controlled almost 70 percent of these games now. It’s been Duncan and Kevin together who have won us the balls in the midfield and this is what’s allowing us to put up 16-20 shots.”
In their second round matchup with South Carolina, the Gauchos controlled the majority of the game before heading into overtime tied 0-0. However, less than three minutes into the extra period, junior left winger Ismaila Jome, who has been hampered with a left ankle injury for much of the season, curled in a brilliant right-footed strike from 20 yards out to notch the most important goal of his career and send his team into the next round.
Santa Barbara will be hoping to have starting goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg back for Sunday’s game after missing the last three halves of play and overtime with a bruised shoulder. The freshman earned an All-Big West Honorable Mention this season and was 13-4-1 in his 18 starts.
Sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Berke, who started the majority of last season, will fill in once again if the younger Vom Steeg is unable to play. Should the game go into penalties however, the Gauchos will likely elect to go with Vom Steeg because of his extra length.
Offensively, UCSB will be hoping to get junior Nick DePuy out of a scoring drought that has lasted four games. The 6’4” forward is currently tied for second in the nation in goals scored with 15 and leads all players with eight game-winning goals. The Gauchos have never lost when DePuy has scored, going an undefeated 16-0-4 when he’s found the back of the net.
“That game will, number one, be a great game. But number two, player for player we’ll match them up all over the place,” Tim Vom Steeg said. “You’re not going to get 10 shots in the first half and we’re going to have to do better with less shots, but I keep feeling like the dam is going to break for us. We have 35 shots with 1 goal in the last couple games, so I just feel like we’re due.”
This will be UCSB’s seventh Sweet 16 appearance in program history. The Gauchos earned a first-round bye when they were given the No. 15 seed in the tournament, clinching their 12th NCAA Tournament berth in the past 14 years in the process. It was the seventh time that UCSB has received a seed in the tournament.
On the Clemson side, this will be the second consecutive Sweet 16th appearance for the program, making it 24 total in the school’s history.
Senior forward T.J. Casner leads the offense with 10 goals, two of which he scored in last week’s postseason matchup against Elon. That mark is good for third-best in the ACC to go along with his conference-best six game-winners.
As a team, the Tigers rank first in the nation in assists at 2.3 a game and fourth in total goals with 48. A balanced attack has seen six Clemson players record double-digits in points this season, compared to four for UCSB.
This will be the first ever meeting between UCSB and Clemson, regular or postseason. The Gauchos will be looking to continue their run for their first NCAA Championship since 2006. The Tigers have two national championships, won in 1984 and 1987. This is their 15th tournament appearance since their title-winning run in ‘87.
“Everytime you’re in the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to have to hit that one game,” Vom Steeg said. “The 2006 team, we traveled and played the No. 1 rated team at SMU. This Clemson is our game. The fact that we’re playing in that game is where this team needs to be.”
The Gauchos take on the Tigers at Historic Riggs Field this Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN3. The winner will face the winner between No. 7 seed Maryland and No. 10 seed Maryland next Friday in the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals.