UC SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Wednesday night's men's soccer match between UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside was ugly, physical, and packed to the brim with drama, as the hosting No. 3 seed Gauchos overcame a 2-0 second half deficit to win, 3-2.
Salvador Aguilar's 86th minute goal capped the comeback and propelled Santa Barbara into a Big West Semifinal date with UC Irvine on Saturday.
FROM HEAD COACH TIM VOM STEEG
"The game didn't turn out like we thought it was going to, to fall behind, 2-0, and then have to throw caution to the wind and get after it," Vom Steeg said. "I actually thought we played a good first half, just gave up a goal, and then coming out of halftime we give up the second goal. Everything you say to your team about fighting through adversity, this has been an up-and-down year for us, we've had some really great wins, some really frustrating losses, so I think those type of experiences lend itself to this type of effort, and in the end, I thought that we wore them down, we stayed after it and to be honest, we weren't happy with just tying the game. I knew that if we could just get that first goal, the next couple would come, so obviously a great result."
FROM SALVADOR AGUILAR
"Before the goal, I kind of just made eye contact with Alexis (Ledoux) and I just told him where I wanted it," Aguilar said. "These are reps that we do in training, day in, day out, so he knows specifically where to put the ball. I was able to peel off my mark and attack the ball, which is something I've been working on and doing a lot better. I would say that was my specialty last year, I got a lot of headed goals, and I'm just happy to have been able to do it again tonight in front of all the fans in such an important game."
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Gauchos may have planned for it, but they certainly did not imagine the game starting the way it did. With UCR pressing high up the field, Santa Barbara was penned into their own half for most of the first 10 minutes, and captain Lucas Gonzalez went into the referee's book early, picking up a yellow card in the fourth minute. The resulting free kick gave the Highlanders a good look at goal, but the Gauchos' wall did its job. UCR got another dangerous free kick in the 15th minute, even closer than the first, but again it was blocked by Santa Barbara's defensive wall.
The match did not get any less chippy as the first half progressed, and things only got more contentious in the sequence leading to the Highlanders' opening goal. In the 23rd minute, Gonzalez was sent to the turf not too far from UCR's goal, but the referee waved for the teams to play on, and the visitors took the ball the other way. Mikkel Goeling was called for a foul for a similar challenge near midfield, and from that free kick, a series of unfortunate bounces helped a UCR attacker keep the ball, eventually finishing the game's opening goal. UC Santa Barbara's Vom Steeg pled his case, but only got himself added to the referee's book.
But after conceding the goal, the Gauchos started to fight back and seize more of the momentum. Pablo Figueroa was very lively on the left wing in the first 45 minutes, including a great solo run to create a chance in the 24th minute. His shot to the near post just narrowly went the wrong side of it. On the defensive end, Eddie Villeda made a great sliding challenge in the Gauchos' penalty area two minutes later to shut down a Highlander breakaway.
The chances kept coming for Santa Barbara as halftime approached. The Gauchos got a free kick no more than 25 yards from goal in the 32nd minute, but that narrowly missed wide. They had a strong case for a penalty kick in the 41st after Alexis Ledoux was taken down, but it was waved away. Ledoux did draw a foul in the 45th minute, setting up a free kick just outside the 18-yard box near the endline, but nothing came of it, and the home team went into halftime down a goal.
It was not long after halftime that the Gauchos suddenly found themselves down two goals, as UCR scored in the 46th minute on what was essentially their first attack of the half.
However, with nothing left to lose, Santa Barbara started taking major steps towards a win. Nicolas Willumsen pulled one back for the Gauchos in the 54th minute, being in the right place at the right time to put home a loose ball in the penalty area. The hosts then had another compelling case for a penalty kick shortly afterwards, but again it was waved off.
The Gauchos were finally awarded a spot kick in the 78th minute when it was ruled that a UCR defender committed a handball, earning him a yellow card. There was then a significant delay, as the Highlanders' players, bench and coaches all complained, earning two more UCR players and their head coach yellow cards as well. After the dust settled, Ledoux was finally able to take the penalty, and he calmly buried it in the bottom corner, tying the match.
All the momentum was with the Gauchos at this point, and Ledoux had a claim for another penalty in the 81st minute after being tripped, but he was told to get back up. Still, Santa Barbara surged forward, with Filip Basili stepping up from his left back position to fire a couple shots. His second attempt deflected out for the corner kick which would lead to the winning goal.
Ledoux played the ball into the penalty area, and Aguilar rose to meet it, firing a header past the Highlander keeper for his third goal of the season, all against UCR. The Gauchos held their lead for the final four minutes, punching their tickets to the conference semifinal.
With the win, the Gauchos advance to the semifinals of The Big West Championship, where they will face No. 2 seed UC Irvine on Saturday at 6 p.m. from Anteater Stadium in Irvine. The match will also be live on ESPN+ with live stats available through ucsbgauchos.com.
(Courtesy of UCSB Athletics)