MSoc: Gauchos, Mustangs draw in front of big crowd

For the 14,345 fans that packed Harder Stadium to see Cal Poly vs. UCSB on Saturday night – the second largest on-campus crowd in NCAA men’s soccer history – the product on the field did not disappoint.

This season’s first Blue-Green rivalry matchup ended in an exciting 2-2 draw, in a game filled with up-tempo, physical play that riled up the raucous crowd.

“Wow, that was a game,” said UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg in a post-game press conference.

The game was flowing up and down the field right from the first whistle, with both teams having opportunities to score.

Axel Mendez was lively early on for the Gauchos. Murphy dropped the ball back to Mendez at the top of the box, but Mendez’s shot was blocked by a Cal Poly defender. After a bad giveaway by Cal Poly’s defense, Mendez found some space behind the Mustang back four, but his shot was right at Cal Poly goalkeeper Wade Hamilton.

Ludwig Ahl had his shot punched over the crossbar by Hamilton in the 8th minute.

The Mustangs started a dangerous 3-on-2 counter attack, and Kaba Alkebulan was one-on-one with Gaucho goalkeeper Brandon Berke. But, a brilliant piece of defensive covering by center back Duncan Backus thwarted the Mustangs’ chance.

The Gauchos were not so fortunate four minutes later. On a second Mustang counter attack, a clever back heel at midfield by Alkebulan sent Cal Poly’s Justin Dhillon in at goal. The sophomore forward tucked his shot into the bottom right corner, giving Cal Poly the lead 14 minutes into the match.

The Mustangs almost added to their lead on multiple occasions, none closer than Chase Minter’s effort in the 19th. Off a weak clearance by UCSB’s defense, Minter struck the ball well from outside the box, only for it to slam off the right post and out of play.

Berke made multiple key saves, including a point blank one in the 26th, to keep his team down by one.

The Gauchos had chances to level the score, but Hamilton, the Big West Conference leader in saves, impressively denied every Gaucho attempt on goal. Before the match Vom Steeg called Hamilton “the hottest goalie in the league right now” and Cal Poly’s “most valuable player.” Hamilton proved why, making six stellar saves in the first 45 minutes of play. Hamilton finished the match with nine saves.

Cal Poly carried their momentum in the second half, when Dhillon scored his second goal of the game in the 52nd minute, to extend Cal Poly’s lead to two. Left back Jack O’Connor found Dhillon, who unleashed a powerful strike from 20-yards out into the back of the net.

But, the Gauchos, who have battled adversity in recent weeks, proved their mental toughness. A minute after Dhillon’s second goal, UCSB responded with one of its own. Andy Perez crossed the ball from the right flank towards Nick DePuy, who let the ball run through his legs to an incoming Ahl, who brought the Gauchos back within one.

“It was a good score, but it wasn’t completely my goal,” said Ahl. “I was just in the right spot at the right time, and I just hit it.”

Perez made his second appearance of the season. In two games, the sophomore now has a goal and an assist.

The Gauchos kept the pressure on, and were rewarded for their efforts in the 66th. Mendez passed the ball over Cal Poly’s defense to DePuy, who calmly chested the ball down and lofted it over Hamilton, tying the game at 2 apiece. DePuy leads the Gauchos with five goals on the season.

Mendez almost gave the Gauchos the lead a minute after DePuy equalized, on his 30-yard shot that went just wide.

DePuy was a towering presence in the 18-yard box for the Gauchos to serve balls into. The Gauchos leading goal scorer narrowly missed a couple of headers, one just wide in the 79th, and another blocked by Hamilton in the 80th.

Ismaila Jome, who again started at left back, served many dangerous balls into the box. “In the first half, they [Cal Poly] pushed up a lot more,” said Jome. “And then, as the half went on, we had more space, and I had more space down the left hand side.”
Jome added, “As the game opened up, I had more space to cross the ball.”

Despite all of this added pressure, Cal Poly kept the game at 2-2, and the two rivals headed to overtime.

The Gauchos outshot the Mustangs 7-0 in overtime, but were unable to put one away, settling for a draw. UCSB outshot Cal Poly 30-10 overall, and 11-5 in shots on goal.

From the time Cal Poly went ahead 2-0, UCSB was the more dangerous offensive team.

“When we got that first goal, you could just feel the whole momentum turn,” said Vom Steeg. “We got the second goal, and then we were just waiting to finish that team off. And we didn’t get that third goal.”

But, Vom Steeg was proud of his team for fighting back from a two goal deficit.

“You have to give the guys an unbelievable amount of credit,” said Vom Steeg. “Your down 2-0, your in the second half. They bounced, they fought, they kept playing.”

UCSB, after losing captain center back Paul Ehmann, who returned to his native Germany, is still trying to find its rhythm defensively.

Backus and Jeff Quezada started at center back, only their fourth game playing together. Kevin Garcia-Lopez returned after missing two weeks with an eye injury, while Jome has just recently moved to the left back position.

“We’re still not settled in the back, and it’s going to be this reoccurring thing, where we’re just going to have to keep working at it, because it is what we have right now,” said Vom Steeg. “But, again I thought our defense, as the game went on, got more organized.”

The game lived up to its physical reputation, with nine yellow cards given (five for UCSB, four for Cal Poly), and a total of 24 fouls committed, 16 by UCSB.
The match was broadcast on Fox Sports Prime Ticket, the third nationally televised match for the Gauchos this season. The two others, vs. Stanford (Pac-12 Network) and vs. UCLA (NSCAA TV), resulted in losses for UCSB.

UCSB hosts UC Davis in its next game (10/29, 7 p.m.), the final regular season home match for the Gauchos. The Gauchos and Mustangs will square off once again next Sunday (11/2) at Cal Poly’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium, where the Gauchos have not won in five seasons.

UCSB can not look ahead to that matchup just yet, as the Gauchos need a win against UC Davis to tie the Aggies in first place of the Big West Northern Division.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story didn’t clarify that the NCAA attendance record is for on-campus games.