Can UC Santa Barbara break Creighton’s defense?

UCSB’s offense is clicking.

But can the Gauchos crack the brick wall that is Creighton’s defense?

The Gauchos will give it their best shot on Sunday in a NCAA men’s soccer tournament Sweet 16 matchup against the No. 2-seeded Blue Jays at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Neb. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. PST.

Creighton (19-2-0) is riding a string of eight straight shutouts and has allowed only four goals all season. Also, it’s given up only 150 shots.

“We cannot just attribute our defense on our four defenders, it goes through the entire team,” said first-year Bluejay head coach Elmar Bolowich after last Sunday’s 3-0 second-round win over Northern Illinois. “When we lose the ball, you see how hard Ethan (Finlay) is working to put pressure on the other players and then the guys underneath, Choco (Jose Gomez) and Bruno (Castro) — how hard they work to get the ball back, it makes it very difficult for other teams to get in a comfortable rhythm.”


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Creighton outshot NIU 13-4 in the match and Missouri Valley Conference Goalkeeper of the Year Brian Holt made just one save in posting his 42nd career shutout.

“To be fair, Creighton was the best team we have played in a long time, that is including Akron,” said Northern Illinois head coach Eric Luzzi after the match.  “Akron is in our conference and we play them once, sometimes twice a year. That team we just played, on both sides of the ball, is about as good a team as I have seen in the last couple of years.”

UCSB's Luis Silva is the Gauchos' most dangerous offensive weapon with 17 goals. (Vince Agapito Photo)

But UCSB is playing well and had a week to prepare for the Blue Jays.

“I like this team wherever we play,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg. “In terms of being rested, focused and ready to play on Sunday, we will be ready to play on Sunday.”

Vom Steeg said Sunday’s scenario is similar to the 2006 match at tournament No. 3-seeded SMU. The Gauchos won 3-1 en route to the national championship.

“It’s a very similar set up for us, playing at the top seed (in the bracket),” he said.

During that championship year, UCSB went 5-1 down the stretch to reach the NCAA Tournament. This year’s team has won six of its last seven.

UCSB and Creighton had their first meeting last year in Santa Barbara and the Bluejays won 1-0.

They were then coached by Jamie Clark, who left after last season to take the job at Washington. Bolowich came over from North Carolina, where he guided the Tar Heels to three straight final fours and a national title in 2001.

“It’s basically Jamie’s team. They’re built that way, they’re recruited that way,” said Vom Steeg, referring to the tough, disciplined defensive players and an explosive forward. “Elmar obviously has done a good job with them. We’re little bit familiar with them, we have last year’s tape, but because there is a different coach, there are probably some nuances there.”

Finlay is the Bluejays’ explosive forward. The two-time MVC Player of the Year scored 13 goals, 11 coming at Morrison Stadium. He has five goals in his last three NCAA Tournament matches.

Luzzi was impressed with Creighton’s overall game.

“They are the complete package,” he said. “On the ball, very, very comfortable in possession. They don’t lose the ball easily or cheaply, the angles they create are good and technically they are very sharp.  But on the flip side, defensively, they work very hard.  Anything we were not able to do today was more down to them not allowing us to do it than us not being able to.  We train a lot with our guys when they lose it [the ball] to try and work hard to win it right back and we are pretty good at it, for the most part  But the way Creighton re-pressured us after they lost the ball made it very difficult for us to get it off our half.  They are very good on the ball, very committed off the ball.”

The Blue Jays will have to deal UCSB’s offensive firepower of Silva (17 goals, 10 assists), Sam Garza (8 goals, 4 assists), David Opoku (8 goals) and Dom Sarle (4 goals, 9 assists).

“I am expecting it will be a game in which we’ll really have to work hard to break them down,” Vom Steeg said. “Getting that first goal will be absolutely critical. if we can get them to come after us, that will be a big part of that game.”

He added: “It’s a matchup in which if you’re going to get through the tournament, you’re going to have to beat a high seed.”

Notes—Courtesy of Creighton’s sports information department: Creighton is looking to improve upon its 12-0-3 record against California-based school in its last 15 meetings. The Bluejays beat Saint Mary’s 1-0 and UC Irvine 3-1 earlier this season in Omaha. Before UCI scored against them, the Bluejays had not allowed a goal to a California team in 10 straight meetings (including a 1-0 win at UCSB last year). Creighton last lost to a team from California on Sept. 7, 2003 (2-1, 2OT, at LMU).  No school from California has won at Morrison Stadium, with Creighton going 7-0-2 in Omaha against teams from the Golden State since 2003. In fact, no California team has ever won in Omaha, going 0-9-3 all-time against the Bluejays at home. Creighton’s Morrison Stadium was ranked first by College Soccer News as the most exciting venue to watch college soccer. Harder Stadium was second.