MSoc: Mendez scores two goals to lift UCSB past Sac State

The UC Santa Barbara men’s soccer team was clearly happy to be back home on Wednesday night, as the Gauchos matched a season-high for goals in a 4-1 drubbing of Sacramento State to win their fifth straight contest at Harder Stadium.

UCSB (7-6-2, 3-2-1 in Big West play) was without a number of key players due to injury and card accumulation in the contest, so some new figures were needed to step up and produce. Produce they did, as freshman midfielder Axel Mendez recorded his first career brace, sophomore midfielder Andy Perez notched his first career score, and junior defender Duncan Backus landed the knockout punch by converting on a free kick.

“It was obviously a really good effort by our team tonight, especially considering the state of our squad right now with all the injuries,” said UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg. “I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve been training this week, and that clearly showed itself out on the field today.”

As dominating as the Gauchos were offensively, they were just as stifling defensively, holding the Hornets (4-9-2, 2-4 Big West) to just one shot on the goal for the entire game. This came despite the fact that two of the back four (left back Ismaila Jome and right back Christian Rodriguez) were making their first starts of the season in their respective spots, while center back Duncan Backus is also a recent convert to his position.

Jome, known for his darting runs down the left wing as Big West Freshman of the Year, did not let his deeper position inhibit him from making plays on the left side.

In fact, the MAC Hermann Award Watch List member set up UCSB’s first goal in the 17th minute, picking up a pass in space down the left flank before sending in a cross near post. Perez, making his first appearance of the season, ran to meet the cross and out-muscled his defender to get a slight touch on it. Hornets keeper James Del Curto got his hand on it, but couldn’t stop the ball from backspinning into the net.

In the 25th minute, a card-inducing foul on Jome inches away from the left touch line led to another goal for UCSB. After Sacramento State failed to clear the Drew Murphy free kick, the ball eventually fell to Mendez, who had his back to goal. Quickly spinning while controlling the ball, Mendez blasted a shot over the keeper’s head to put the Gauchos up 2-0.

Already up by a pair and with a 10-2 shot advantage at the halftime break, UCSB put the game to bed for good with two goals in the opening five minutes of the second half.

Just seconds into the second stanza, Sac St. earned a free kick on its side of the halfway line. Trying to quickly restart play, a Hornet tried to play a horizontal pass, but it was picked off by freshman forward Ludwig Ahl. Now with plenty of space on a 2-v-2, the Swede advanced up the field and waited for Mendez’s marker to close on Ahl before laying in a pass to Mendez for a breakaway. Mendez took his time before slotting to the keeper’s right for his third goal of the season.

Backus closed the scoring for UCSB in the 50th minute. Once again, Jome earned a UCSB free kick after being fouled on a dangerous run. Just outside the 18-yard box and to the keeper’s right, Backus and Murphy both stood over the ball, but the latter stepped up to take the kick, sending a curler to the far post. Once again, Del Curto got some of the ball but not all of it, giving Backus his second goal of the season.

The Gauchos ended up outshooting the Hornets 15-7 on the day, with a 6-2 edge in corners and 7-1 advantage in shots on frame. It was the fewest shots on goal allowed to an oppenent by UCSB this season.

Despite not making a save on the day, freshman keeper Brandon Berke saw his record improve to 5-3-1.

The Gauchos play their penultimate home game of the season on Saturday night, hosting Blue-Green rival Cal Poly in a nationally televised showdown. UCSB has owned the Mustangs at Harder Stadium in Tim Vom Steeg’s tenure, accruing a 13-1-2 record against its Central Coast rival. Kickoff for that game is scheduled at 7:30 p.m.

UCSB-Cal Poly matchups have proven themselves to be especially large draws. Over the past four years, the seven highest attended NCAA men’s soccer matchups have been Gaucho-Mustang showdowns. Of the 14 largest regular season, on-campus crowds in NCAA history, nine have been for UCSB-Cal Poly games.