IRVINE – In a knock-down, drag-out battle that appeared headed for a scoreless draw, UCSB’s men’s soccer team found a way to pull out a huge road victory and clinch a tie for the Big West regular season title.
Danny Barrera sent a 30-yard free kick to the far post, where Martin Hedevag got his head on it and crossed the ball to Tim Pontius, who headed into the net for a dramatic 1-0 decision over UC Irvine in double overtime Saturday night at Anteater Stadium.
The victory, combined with Cal Poly’s loss to UC Davis on Saturday, secured a share of first place for the No. 4-ranked Gauchos, who improved to 7-1-0 (21 points) in the Big West and 13-3-1 overall. They can wrap up the title outright with a win or tie at Cal Poly on Wednesday night. No. 19 UC Irvine, which had a six-match winning streak snapped, fell to 5-3-0 (15 points) and 12-5-0 overall.
The winning goal, coming in the 103rd minute, came on a play the team worked on the night before.
The Gauchos practiced scoring on free kicks as they went through a walk-through at the stadium. Vom Steeg told his team that he was “ ‘so tired of our free kicks. None of us is dangerous. We don’t have any imagination.’
“We specifically talked about touching the ball off and hitting Martin on the back post and getting him to head it across the middle. “
The deciding free kick was set up after Michael Tetteh was fouled about 30 yards out on the left side of the field. As the Gauchos lined up for the set piece, Vom Steeg hollered to Peter McGlynn to run the play.
“ ‘We talked about it, now let’s go run it. Let’s not just dump a ball in the box,’ “ Vom Steeg said. “Martin , like a warrior, got around (his defender) just enough to get the ball back in and Tim was where he was supposed to be.
“It was a great team effort,” he added. “It was great win at a tough place to win against a very good team. We talked about collecting hardware this year for this team. At the very least we’ll pick up one trophy. Then we want to make it outright over the next two games and then make it another trophy.”
The Gaucho defense certainly deserves a trophy after its performance on Saturday. Michael David shadowed UC Irvine playmaker Irving Garcia all over the field; the backline of Hedevag, Michael Boxall and Tim Pontius frustrated the Anteaters’ high-scoring tandem of Amani Walker and Spencer Thompson and goalkeeper Sam Hayden turned in another solid effort, making six saves, to post his 11th shutout of the season. He got some help from the post, which denied a shot by Walker in the first half.
“It’s probably the best defensive group we’ve had from the goalkeeper on up since 2004, which is appropriate because it’s a team we keep comparing ourselves to,” said Vom Steeg. “MD’s defense on Irving was unbelievable. That was one of the big adjustments we made at halftime.”
Vom Steeg said one of the joys of working with this group of players is they’re very coachable. “We’ve just gotten a great buy-in. That’s one of the great things about this group. You do all the work to get through these games. Last year when we got to these games, we were too tired. We were too young, too tired, too beat up. We just didn’t have anything left. I feel now our team is just beginning to see the finish line.”