UCSB and Cal Poly showcased truly how close the Big West Men’s Soccer standings are in front of 8,128 fans on Sunday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo.
Amidst the fiery crowd of Mustang faithful, the Gauchos came away with a 1-0 Blue-Green Rivalry victory thanks to an 81st-minute goal by redshirt junior midfielder Lucas Gonzalez.
With the win, UCSB jumped into a tie for second in the Big West standings, leapfrogging Cal Poly in the process.
“At the end, it became a war of attrition,” UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “This is a tough place to play, but this is a great win for the guys.”
After the vast majority of the match was made up of defensive stop after defensive stop on both sides, the UCSB offense found a crack in the Cal Poly defense.
Salvador “Chava” Aguilar won a ball inside the Mustang box off a cross and served a pass into a cutting Gonzalez, who finished it off for the tap-in goal.
“We just tried to push numbers forward and I beat my man to the box,” Gonzalez said of the game-winner. “It was a really nice play from the boys and I was glad to finish it off.”
The first half was a back-and-forth one, as Cal Poly kept the ball in the UCSB half of the field for the majority of the first 10 minutes but the possession time at the end of 45 minutes was even at 50% apiece.
“I thought we had a really good spell in the first half,” Vom Steeg said. “I thought we created a couple really good opportunities there in the first half.”
Both teams registered five shots in the half, but the most dramatic of them came in the 39th minute by the Mustangs.
Off a free kick, Cal Poly crossed the ball into the UCSB box and the ball rattled around off multiple players, but ultimately Gaucho goalkeeper Leroy Zeller managed to divert the ball away from the action to maintain the scoreless tie.
The Mustangs came out of halftime aggressive, pushing the ball into the UCSB half of the field and rattling off five shots in the first 10 minutes, matching their total from the entire first period.
However, Zeller and the rest of the Gaucho defense turned each of those shots away.
More back-and-forth play ensued as neither offense could find holes in the opposition’s defense, until Gonzalez and the UCSB offense did just that, silencing the Cal Poly crowd.
The goal was a big one for Gonzalez, as this was his first game back in the lineup since Sept. 19 against California Baptist.
“[Gonzalez] changes the game, we’ve been missing that,” Vom Steeg said of his midfielder.
The Gauchos would close out the match, but not before some late dramatics courtesy of the Mustang offensive attack in the 86th minute.
After Zeller blocked a long shot attempt, Cal Poly’s Conner Lisenbee connected with the ricochet but it was sent wide left, preserving the 1-0 lead that would last the remaining four minutes.
The attendance number of 8,128 is the second-highest for collegiate soccer games this season and 40th all-time for the regular season.
“It’s one of a kind, it feels like a professional atmosphere,” Gonzalez said of playing in the rivalry games. “You kinda use your adrenaline to push you through the hard times and play for your brothers out here.”
“This is arguably the toughest place to play because they’re on top of you, it’s a tight field,” Vom Steeg said. “We’re just happy if we can get out of here with a goal… I give the guys a lot of credit.”
Although it was a big rivalry win inside enemy territory, Vom Steeg understands the bigger picture with just three conference matchups remaining.
“It’s a rivalry win, but let’s be honest, we gotta get points here,” Vom Steeg said. “We gotta figure out a way to climb up the rankings here and give ourselves a chance to get home playoff games.”
Sunday’s win could go a long way in the final conference standings, as the Gauchos now sit tied for second place with CSU Bakersfield and UC San Diego with a record of 3-2-1, good for 10 points. The Mustangs are now in third with eight points.
Every Big West squad is staring up at CSU Fullerton, as the Titans have a conference mark of 5-1 and 15 total points.
“We all know in this conference it’s about the Big West Tournament, but you certainly want to avoid playing games on the road like this,” Vom Steeg said. “Harder Stadium is where we do well and where we want to be.”
The Gauchos will turn around and play host to Sacramento State on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium.