Playing soccer in 57-degree weather and with a roster full of injured players is bad.
The only thing worse than having to go through that is to lead the entire game, allow the opponent to score a goal late in the contest and have to settle for a tie.
This is what happened to the UC Irvine Men’s Soccer team on Nov. 5 as they played to a 1-1 tie against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in a Big West Conference game at Anteater Stadium.
‘Our effort was tremendous, our execution wasn’t as it’s been in the final third [of the game],’ said Head Coach George Kuntz.
UC Irvine (6-8-3, 3-1-3 Big West) went on the offensive early and had Cal Poly on its heels playing defense throughout the first half after junior midfielder Dardo Acuna scored in the opening minutes of the game.
However, the Anteaters were unable to score another goal and allowed the rejuvenated Mustags (6-6-4, 2-4-2) to push the tempo of the game after halftime as they constantly had the ball on the Anteaters’ half of the field.
‘We were a little shook up by the first goal,’ said Wolfgang Gartner, head coach of Cal Poly. ‘In the second half, we got the upper hand.’
Despite the pressure from Cal Poly, Irvine’s defense was still good enough at the start of the second half to prevent Cal Poly from scoring on a number of good opportunities.
Then in the 64th minute of regulation, Irvine committed a critical mistake.
Receiving a pass from center field, Cal Poly junior forward Danny Calderon raced towards the goal and was ready to score. Inside the box, Anteater sophomore defender Sergio Rivera fouled Calderon, and this set up a Cal Poly free kick, which they would capitalize on.
Calderon faked, passed the ball to teammate junior forward Mark Jones, who was not blocked from the goal by the wall set up by Irvine, and quickly darted the ball past lunging junior goalkeeper Cameron Rossi to tie the game.
‘I had my whole hand on it and sometimes God just doesn’t want you to save it,’ Rossi said. ‘Unfortunately, it was just one of those times.’
Acuna added, ‘We put ourselves in a position where we let them get back into the game. After [Cal Poly scored] we were scrapping to get what we could.’
Talking about his team strategy in the second half, Gartner said, ‘We put Irvine on their heels a little bit. We didn’t play in front of them, because sooner or later you’ll lose the ball and run into a counter-attack.’
The goal by Cal Poly ended Rossi’s two-game shutout streak.
Irvine almost let the game slip away three minutes later when Rossi stumbled and fell, leaving the goal wide open. Luckily, freshman defender Cameron Dunn was in the box and headed the ball out of harms way. After Rossi got up, Irvine clamped down on defense and prevented Cal Poly from scoring the rest of the game.
The goal in the 64th minute negated a spectacular goal by Acuna earlier in the game. Not wasting time and only five minutes in, Acuna found himself out a 30-yard straightaway from the goal with a small cushion of space between himself and Cal Poly defenders to both his left and right sides.
Realizing his situation, Acuna quickly blasted a kick, and with precision, placed it in the upper-right corner of the goal, far enough that Cal Poly’s senior goalkeeper Greg Belvins had no chance of saving it. The ball went to the back of the net and Irvine went up 1-0.
‘I saw [junior forward] Sebastian [Galmarini] make a run. He cleared out a big space for me and I ran into it,’ Acuna said. ‘I saw the goalie off his line and I basically faked a couple of times, winded up and hit it as hard as I could.’
Kuntz added, ‘He hit it so hard and so well-placed that the goalkeeper couldn’t do anything about it. It was right on the money.’
With the tie, Irvine extends its unbeaten streak to six games amidst the fact that many of its athletes are playing injured.
‘We’re banged up,’ Kuntz said. ‘We’re just trying to keep guys on the field. We have a lot of injured players, including four attacking players.’
Despite the injuries, the tie has moved Irvine up into a tie with UC Santa Barbara for second place in the Big West Conference behind Cal State Northridge. The Anteaters will take on both teams once more before the end of the season.
Kuntz looked at this tie in a positive light, noting that Cal Poly ‘did not score from the run of play, they scored on a free kick. But we still gave up a goal.’
To finish the season strong and win games instead of tying, the answer is simple.
‘You just have to put the ball in the back of the net, that’s how you win games,’ Acuna said.