When you’re fighting for an at-large bid to the College Cup, any win is a good win.
Coming off their best game of the season and in an obvious “trap game” against a weak Gonzaga team, the UCSB men’s soccer team did exactly what it had to do on Tuesday, holding off a late push from the Bulldogs to secure a 2-1 victory. With the win, Santa Barbara now moves to 6-3 on the season, while the ‘Zags fall to 2-6-2.
In front of 1,800 fans, the Gauchos started off the game on the front foot, dominating possession for the entire first half. Knowing they were overmatched, Gonzaga was content to essentially park the bus, having all 11 players play behind the ball when UCSB had possession.
Despite the ‘Zags’ low line, Santa Barbara still created a flurry of chances in the first 20 minutes, mostly predicated around the wing play of junior forward Noah Billingsley on the right. Nine minutes in, Billingsley easily avoided the defender on the wing before playing a through ball to in-form sophomore Rodney Michael, whose rocket shot to the front post was parried by the keeper. Less than five minutes later, the duo hooked up once again; this time, Michael rounded the keeper before having his pass across the face of goal intercepted.
In the 26th minute, Santa Barbara finally found paydirt. In a move similar to the first goal on Saturday night, senior midfielder Axel Mendez picked up the ball centrally, taking a daft touch before sending a long aerial ball past the defense and onto the right foot of Michael, who was immediately taken down by the Gonzaga keeper for a penalty. Michael stepped up to the spot, composed as ever, and sent the keeper the wrong way to give Santa Barbara the crucial first goal.
“This game was a lot easier than the game Saturday for me because there was a lot less pressure when I was on the ball,” Mendez said. “That gave me time to pick out my teammates better and allowed me to work in space.”
As has been the theme all season, Santa Barbara’s aerial dominance allowed them to pick up an easy second goal — one that gave them some needed breathing space. Junior Ignacio Tellechea crossed the ball into the box off a corner, and after a scramble in front of the goal, junior defender Faouzi Taieb easily sent a right-footed shot past the keeper for his third goal on the season.
Going into halftime, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg had a decision to make: Keep attacking the overmatched ‘Zags, or stay back and try to hold on for the win.
“We decided in the second half that we wanted to defend first and make sure we got the win,” Vom Steeg said.
With eight games in 28 days, Vom Steeg leaned heavily upon his bench in the second half, with the fatigue of many of the starters evident coming off such a big game on Saturday. That fatigue was especially evident at the back, with the team making a number of sloppy and uncharacteristic mistakes. Even in the first half, the Bulldogs had almost scored first when Taieb missed a clearance header, allowing the ‘Zags to break through. Fortunately, freshman keeper Ben Roach made a huge save — the only one needed that night ― to preserve the lead.
Toward the end of the second half, Gonzaga made things interesting when freshman Dimitrius Kiyega pushed a left-footed shot to the bottom left corner of the goal, bringing the Bulldogs within a goal. Despite a late flurry of balls sent into the box, the Gauchos held their line admirably, doing just enough in the second half to get the victory.
“I’m not going to yell and scream about the second half, because we were just doing enough to win the game,” Vom Steeg said. “We got the two goals we needed, and once again our defense was good enough to get us the win.”
Despite the less-than-convincing performance against a weak team, the Gauchos will take any victory they can get. Now, Santa Barbara must travel to Cal Poly SLO to take on the Mustangs. Last season, Cal Poly thrashed the Gauchos 4-1 in this game. After receiving votes in the coaches’ poll this week, UCSB will need a victory in a difficult environment if it hopes to keep its dream of an at-large-bid to the college cup alive.