Gauchos come up short at Creighton, 2-1

UCSB fell behind early and came up short in its comeback attempt, losing to No. 2-seeded Creighton 2-1 on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Neb.

The No. 15 Gauchos gave up two goals in the first 20 minutes and couldn’t get anything going offensively in the first half against the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation.

They did muster an attack late in the second half and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the 79th minute on David Opoku’s header off a beautiful cross from Dom Sarle.

UCSB pushed to get the equalizer, but the comeback was spoiled when senior defender Tim Pontius was hit with a red card in the 88th minute.

“I love the effort the guys showed in the second half,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “I thought the fact that we competed and that we got on the board, and then from there we had to get the second goal, and we were chasing a little bit.”

Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich said the game shouldn’t have been so close.

“I felt like we shouldn’t have even been in the position we were at the end,” Bolowich said. “We missed opportunities to really put that game out of reach, especially in the first half when we really dominated.

“We had a chance to really put that team away, and it’s the learning process that this team still needs to go through. You have to put a game out of reach and not let a team hang in when they shouldn’t be hanging in.”

The Gauchos end the season at 15-7-1, while Creighton (20-2-0) moves on to the quarterfinals to play either South Florida or New Mexico.

Creighton took a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute when the Bluejays were awarded a rarely called penalty kick during a corner kick. Referee Chico Grajeda called the penalty when Sam Garza apparently held Creighton’s Ethan Finlay on Bruno Castro’s corner kick.

“We teach our guys to front their men and to get our arms around people,’’ Vom Steeg said. “We tell them not to grab or hold but the explanation I got was that he (Grajeda) told Garza not to hold him (Finlay).

“Sam said he was not holding him but obviously the referee saw it differently, I guess. Like I said, it’s a bad way to start a game.”

He added: “Typically when you get a PK called, it’s on a play where something happens in the box or a hand ball. More than anything, we were confused what the call was because the ball didn’t go anywhere near where the call was made.”

Falling behind on the road, against the best defensive team country, was the worst-case scenario for UCSB.

“That was huge,” Ribeiro said of the early two-goal lead. “I read where their coach said the first 15 or 20 minutes were going to be key in this game, and I totally agree with it. It gave us a huge mental boost.”

Creighton’s high-pressure, trapping defense made it difficult for the Gauchos to gain any meaningful possession and get into an offensive flow.

“We knew they had a great offense coming into the game,” Creighton midfielder Greg Jordan said. “We knew we really had to be on top of it and helping each other out.

“They had a flurry of chances at the end but I thought we did a pretty good job of stopping them most of the day.”

Things got worse for UCSB when the Bluejays scored their second goal in the 19th minute off another corner kick. Jose Gomez delivered the ball into the middle of the box and Jordan managed to head it across to Andrew Ribiero, who beat goalkeeper Andre Grandt from 10 yards.

Despite the two goals, Grandt played a strong game, finishing with a career-best eight saves.

“We’re down 2-0, and my job is to keep the ball out of the net,” Grandt said. “I didn’t have a chance to save the PK or the goal on the corner kick. But we had a better chance in the second half because we spread out the game a little more.”

UCSB had scored 50 goals coming into the match, but was held to just two shots on goal in the match.

The game, played in temperatures in the 30s and a wind chill below freezing, drew 2,436 to Morrison Stadium.