UCSB had been so good with its finishing in its run to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament.
The Gauchos created quality chances to take the lead in the first half at No. 4 seed Wake Forest. But the goal didn’t come.
Wake Forest was able to finish its one big chance with a minute left in the half and that was enough to end UCSB’s season and advance to the College Cup in nearby Cary, N.C. next weekend.
Midfielder Alistair Johnston scored in the 44th minute and Wake Forest made it stand up for a 1-0 victory over unseeded UCSB on Saturday night at Spry Stadium.
Johnston got the ball at the top right corner of the 18-yard box, saw space in front of him and dribbled toward the goal. Four Gauchos chased him, but none went in on a tackle. A Gaucho player blocked the ball but it went right back go Johnston and he shot inside the right post for the stunning goal.
“It came out of nowhere,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said of the gut-ripping score just before the end of the first half. “We had the opportunity to clear the ball and we didn’t clear it. We should have done better with that.”
Vom Steeg felt his players were hesitant to tackle Johnston because of the fear they might get called for a foul in the box
“It’s hard not to watch an NCAA game and not see PKs being called left and right,” he said. “We were a little hesitant going in and winning the tackle.”
What made matters worse for UCSB was the timing of the goal — one minute left in the half.
“To me, anytime you give up goal with minute to go in the half is bad,” said Vom Steeg “The first half, in my opinion, was the game.”
The Gauchos were without center Hunter Ashworth, who was serving a suspension for accumulation of yellow cards.
“Most of their attacks came on their right side. We had no answer for that because of the absence of Hunter,” said Vom Steeg.
The Gauchos had two good chances to take the lead early in the half but couldn’t convert. Thibault Candia broke into the box but his one-on-one shot was saved by Wake Forest goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg. Noah Billingsley made full contact on a crossing ball with his head but the ball went right into the chest of Pannenberg.
“If you told me Thibault Candia would be walking the ball in 12 yards out, facing the keeper to go up 1-0, I’d take that 9 of 10 times,” Vom Steeg said. “Unfortunately, tonight was the one time.”
On Billingsley’s shot: “Noah’s got all of that head ball and literally hit the keeper in the chest. He’s not saving that from four yards out,” said the Gaucho coach.
In the second half, Candia made a run into the box and missed poking in a crossing ball by inches and Will Baynham had a shot from 10 yards saved by Pannenberg.
Wake Forest coach Bobby Muuss felt fortunate to get out with the win.
“The bottom line is that we needed to survive,” he said. “We talked all week about fighting to play football, fighting to play soccer, fighting to play our game. I think the guys did that for some periods of time.
“I don’t think anyone was really overly excited about the performance, but we said it’s a results-oriented business at this point. I’m extremely proud of the way they managed the last five minutes of the game. The moral of the story is that one of our goals is checked: we wanted to go back to the College Cup and we earned the opportunity to do that.”
Wake Forest will play Virginia in one semifinal game on Friday. Stanford and Georgetown meet in the other national semifinal. The winners play for the College Cup on Sunday.
UCSB traveled a long road to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since it won the College Cup in 2006. After beating Cal at home in the first round, they won at No. 12 St. Mary’s and beat fifth-seeded Indiana in overtime, ending the Hoosiers’ 38-match home win streak.
“I told the players when we started this playoff run that as long as they gave me everything they had that’s all I could ask for,” said Vom Steeg. “It’s not going to be our talent, we’re talented enough to be here. It’s going to be our work rate and our energy. Consistently, they gave it to me.
“They threw themselves all over the field tonight to stay with Wake Forest and gave ourselves a chance.”
Next year’s College Cup returns to UCSB’s Harder Stadium.