It was a big night for UCSB men’s soccer.
Freshman forward David Opoku, whom UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg calls Big David, scored the biggest goal of his young college career in front of the largest on-campus stadium crowd in NCAA history to help the Gauchos score their biggest win of the season.
A record 15,896 fans poured into Harder Stadium and watched the Gauchos get second-half goals from Opoku and Danny Barrera and six saves from goalkeeper Sam Hayden to beat No. 13-ranked UCLA 2-0 for their third straight win after an 0-2-2 start.
The crowd was the largest to see the Gauchos play in Santa Barbara, surpassing the 11,214 who attended their 2004 NCAA quarterfinal win against Virginia Commonwealth.
The attendance figure ranks as the second-largest for a regular season match in NCAA history. The largest was 22,512 when St. Louis played Southern Illinois-Edwardsville at Busch Stadium in 1980.
“Was that a great atmosphere?” Vom Steeg shouted.
The huge crowd was treated to an entertaining, fast-paced game. When the final whistle blew, hundreds of UCSB students poured onto the tortilla-strewn field to celebrate the victory with the jubilant players.
The 6-2 Opoku, who was marvelous with the ball at his feet all night, scored the game-winning goal in the 75th minute off a corner kick. Tim Pontius and Michael Boxall got their heads on Danny Barrera’s corner kick and the ball dropped inside the 6-yard box, where Opoku took a touch before burying his shot through the legs of UCLA goalkeeper Brian Rowe.
“It’s the best thing so far that’s happened to me in my career over here,” said Opoku, who is from Accra, Ghana, “It’s been a real tough start but now I feel like I’m getting it with the team, I’m growing up and I think I’ll get better.”
Opoku had just re-entered the game for forward Sam Garza before he scored. Garza wasn’t happy about coming out of the game, but it all worked out in the end for UCSB (3-2-1).
“Sam, like a competitor, didn’t want to come out, but David is one of those guys you know is going to finish something,” Vom Steeg said. “So, I felt with 10-15 minutes left in this game he might get on the end of something. Did I think he’d get on the end of a corner kick when I subbed him in? I don’t know. It’s one of the better subs I’ve made, though.”
It was Opoku’s third straight game in which he scored a goal.
“For a big man, he’s got presence and he showed it out there tonight,” said team captain and central defender Boxall. “I’m excited for the goals he’s going to score for the rest of the season.”
Opoku said his instincts told him to move into the middle of the box on the set piece.
“Normally on corner kicks I’m supposed to be at the back post,” he explained. “I felt like taking a chance to get into the middle and Pontius headed the ball and it dropped to me and I shot it through the keeper’s legs.”
After he scored, he raced up the sideline under a shower of corn and flour tortillas being tossed by celebrating UCSB students.
Opoku did a nice job setting up teammates for good scoring opportunities in the first half. In the 15th minute, he made great feed to Garza on the left side of the box and Garza ripped a shot that deflected off a UCLA defender, bounced off the hands of Rowe and ricocheted off the far post.
Moments later, Opoku set up Barrera for a shot that was blocked. Peter McGlynn jumped on the rebound and hit his open shot over the cross bar.
After Boxall brilliantly headed away a dangerous cross cat-quick Bruin midfielder Evan Raynr, the Gauchos went on a counterattack. Opoku turned Garza loose on goal, but Garza lost the ball at the byline.
“He was very dominate, even in the first half,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s collecting balls, he was laying things off. We saw it coming a little over the weekend (at the New Mexico Lobo Classic), we saw it in practice this week. We knew he’d have a big night.”
Hayden also had a big night against a young and very talented UCLA team (4-2-1). Two minutes into the second half he made a diving save on shot to the far post by freshman playmaker Kelyn Rowe.
On a bang-bang play in the 69th minute, he stopped Rowe from point-blank range and denied Reed Williams on the rebound.
“Sam played unbelievable in goal, our back line held solid and our midfield worked,” Vom Steeg said. “I thought (Luis) Silva came in and gave us huge lift off the bench in the second half and I thought it was the key to the game.”
Silva made the play that set up the pivotal corner kick for UCSB. He trapped a high ball, dribbled toward the goal and fired a shot that Brian Rowe blocked out of bounds.
Silva assisted on the final goal in the 89th minute. He took a pass from Nic Ryan on a counterattack and laid the ball off for Barrera for the finishing touch.
It put the capper on a big night for the Gauchos, who’ve beaten UCLA only four times in 37 meetings.
“I got to think about the last time I felt that good beating somebody,” said Vom Steeg “They are a very good team. To be able to deliver two second-half goals to win the game, it really doesn’t get any better.”