The No. 19 UCSB men’s soccer team finished off the regular season on a triumphant note, blanking the Cal Poly Mustangs 2-0 on Saturday night.
UCSB ended the season with a 4-1-2 conference record and a 11-3-4 overall record, securing second place in the Big West Conference. Because the Gauchos finished in one of the top two spots in the conference standings, they get a bye in the first round of the Big West Tournament (BWT) and will host a match next weekend. The Mustangs dropped to a 3-4 conference record and a 7-8-1 overall record with the loss, and their sixth place finish in the Big West set them up with a home match against CSUF in the first round of the BWT.
Cal Poly started the match on the attack.
The team seemed to be motivated by the sold-out crowd of 11,075 fans that marked the largest crowd to attend an NCAA soccer match this season. An early shot in the third minute by graduate transfer Colin Hyatt forced UCSB goalkeeper Ben Roach to make a diving save, as the Mustangs had all the momentum early on.
It was the Gaucho counterattack — that has been deadly all year long — that struck first, however, when senior Thibault Candia got the ball in the midfield in the 19th minute.
Candia sent the ball over to freshman Finn Ballard McBride, who passed it out to newly-returned forward Rodney Michael on the right wing. Michael then drove in a low cross over to Will Baynham near the edge of the box. Baynham faked one way, set the ball up with his right foot and lasered a shot into the bottom-left corner of the goal to give UCSB a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute.
The Gauchos seemed content with defending in the first half, moving away from the typical possession-style offense that they have played throughout the season. The Mustangs ended up taking 19 shots to UCSB’s three by the end of the game; however, the defense did a good job of contesting and not giving up great shot angles.
Players on both sides of the Blue-Green rivalry always say that strategy goes by the wayside when these two teams match up due to the physical nature of their games. UCSB conceded a little too much after they scored the opening goal, and Cal Poly continued to apply pressure as the first half wore on.
Forward Emmanuel Perez initiated one of the best chances of the night for the Mustangs in the 32nd minute when he squeezed past the Gaucho backline to put a shot on target. Roach blocked it but had to make two more spectacular saves in a row as the ball ricocheted right back to Hyatt who was wide-open in the box. Not many keepers beside the reigning Big West Defensive Player of the Week could have made those saves, but luckily for UCSB, Roach is on the roster and he kept the team ahead going into halftime.
The second half kicked off similarly to the first, and both teams went back and forth for the first 20 minutes.
In the 67th minute, senior defender Noah Billingsley stole the ball in the attacking third and sent a pass out to Michael who again found Baynham in the box. Baynham attempted a cross that deflected off a Cal Poly defender into the goal, doubling the Gauchos’ lead and essentially putting an end to the game.
This was a huge win for UCSB, both in terms of conference seeding as it earned them the first-round bye and in terms of the team’s place in the national standings. A solid showing in the Big West Tournament should earn the Gauchos an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, and Harder Stadium could possibly host a UCSB NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2015.
The Gauchos will need to focus on the conference tournament before any national aspirations get in the way, but all signs are pointing to a deep postseason run for this team.