Heading into overtime against Cal State Fullerton, the UCSB men’s soccer team had little to be inspired by. For the third straight game, the team had failed to score during regulation.
In total, 270 straight minutes ticked by as Santa Barbara remained without a goal. Having lost their conference opener to Sacramento State, the Gauchos knew that anything short of a victory would put their hopes of a Big West title in serious jeopardy.
Junior Noah Billingsley was not willing to let that happen.
Billingsley sprinted up the left wing, running perfectly onto a cut-back pass from freshman Carter Clemmensen. After receiving the pass, he coolly slotted the ball to the bottom left corner of the net, sending the 1500 fans at Harder Stadium into a frenzy as the team celebrated a much-needed victory.
“My main thing was I didn’t want to sky the shot,” Billingsley said. “It was a huge relief for me to score my first goal of the season, especially in overtime.”
While the Gauchos may have struggled at offense on times, a victory is nonetheless huge for Santa Barbara, pushing the Gauchos to 7-5 on the season and 1-1 in conference play. Now; however, they must go on the road to face both Riverside and Irvine: two huge conference games. So far this season, Santa Barbara is merely 1-5 on the road.
Once Billingsley knocked the shot in through the back of the next, the Gauchos team was relieved, especially after a relatively nondescript 90 minutes of soccer. Heading into the game, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg opted to tinker with the 3-5-2 formation he had deployed most of the season, moving to a more traditional back four.
Vom Steeg also decided to give both junior Mate Restrepo-Mejia and sophomore William Gillingham their first starts of the season in a desperate attempt to kick-start a team that had looked lifeless in the past week.
“We wanted to be physical and bigger today,” Vom Steeg said. “I’m not stubborn enough to where I knew we needed to change something after so many 1-0 losses”.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Vom Steeg also moved star sophomore, Rodney Michael. Previously, Michael had served as a striker–leading the team with six goals– but Vom Steeg wanted to give Michael more freedom on the ball.
“It’s obvious that Michael up front will have three players on him at all times,” he said. “I was also sick of our team just hitting long balls to him and hoping that he would score. We wanted to put him in a position where he could take defenders on.”
For much of the night, Michael struggled in that role. Without direct service, Michael was forced to play much deeper to get involved with the team’s build-up play. On the goal, however, Michael made his presence felt, picking up the ball on the right wing and cutting past two defenders before finding Clemmensen at the top of the box, who then played the pass to Billingsley.
Fullerton struggled to cope with the changes UCSB made. In the second half, the Titans played deep in their own half, seemingly hoping for a draw on the road. More often than not, they were bailed out by their keeper, senior Paul-Andre Guerin. Officially, Guerin only recorded four saves; serving as a sweeper-keeper, however, Guerin came out to punch a multitude of dangerous crosses that easily could have been goals against inferior goalies.
“I think it was really unfortunate that we didn’t score on a set-piece tonight because we had three or four good chances where we could have scored,” Vom Steeg.
Despite dominating possession, the Gauchos once again struggled to create tangible chances from open play. While Clemmensen and junior Ignacio Tellechea offered solid hold-up play up front, both struggled on their long-range shots.
Once again, UCSB was bailed out by its backline– in particular, the center-back duo of junior Faouzi Taieb and Hunter Ashworth. Winning seemingly every aerial ball, the two of them mitigated nearly every opportunity that Fullerton created.
“I thought we had the right approach tonight and played to our strengths,” Vom Steeg said. “Now, we need what we did tonight to carry over to Wednesday’s match at Riverside.”
UCSB will take on UC Riverside at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 10th at UC Riverside Soccer Stadium.