After the fourth goal was put away by the Anteaters in the first half of Saturday night’s world-class performance, it would have been rude for a hospitable school like UC Irvine to ask UC Santa Barbara to leave a bit earlier than they had anticipated.
After all, it wouldn’t make sense for those good old Gauchos to miss the celebration after the men’s soccer team clenched an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament with a 4-2 victory.
Playing before a capacity crowd at Anteater Stadium, it didn’t take long for UCI to prove that they were the better team.
In the 10th minute of play, senior striker Michael Willrich managed to find teammate Amani Walker at the top of the 18-yard box. Cradling the ball with his chest, Walker drew in two Gaucho defenders, opening up forward Rafael Macedo on the right side of the pitch. Macedo took one good touch around the last defender and knocked a shot right past the goalkeeper.
“Amani was able to bring the ball down and slip me through. You really have to give the credit to him for that goal because he was able to use his big body to control that ball and find me in the open position,” Macedo said.
Macedo’s goal allowed the Anteaters to settle down and find the offensive rhythm they have been playing with all year.
Both the coaching staff and the players knew that one goal would not be enough to hold off the strong Santa Barbara soccer club, so they found the 17th minute an appropriate time to increase their lead.
Willrich earned a throw-in for teammate Gray Bailey after knocking the ball out of bounds off of a Gaucho defender. Bailey’s signature throw found Walker, who was then able to get his head on the ball, redirecting it right into the back of the net.
It was unusual to see Walker and Willrich in the starting lineup, but Head Coach George Kuntz explained that with starters Spencer Thompson out recovering from an ankle injury, and Kevin Santora missing the game due to an illness, he looked to his two big men to get the job done.
“I met with them twice, yesterday and today, and I pulled them aside and said, ‘Look, you two need to lift us. We have guys that are banged up and you guys have to rise to the occasion.'”
And that is just what they continued to do.
A miscommunication by the Santa Barbara defense provided Walker the opportunity to poke the ball away from the Gauchos in the 27th minute of play. Walker immediately recognized that Macedo was making a promising run up the right side of the pitch, with no white jerseys in front of him. By switching positions on the field, Walker was rewarded with his second assist of the evening after sending a beautifully placed ball to Macedo, who earned his second goal in the match.
“I feel that we all knew what we had to do as individuals to win this game, and then as a team we managed to get it done,” Walker said. “There is a point where you just have to see it in yourself and say, ‘we just have to pick it up this game, or these 10 minutes, or this half, and show everybody what UCI is all about.'”
With three goals on the scoreboard, the Anteaters finished with one of the prettiest goals Irvine has produced all season.
This time it was Carlos Aguilar who executed a perfect cross that found teammate Irving Garcia in the 40th minute.
It seemed as though the ball traveled in slow motion, allowing Garcia the time to position himself right where he needed to be and offer the slightest of touches to the ball, sneaking it right past the fingertips of the keeper. It was Garcia’s seventh consecutive game with at least a point.
At this point the Santa Barbara fans were no longer chanting words of encouragement for their team, but probably gathering signatures in support of a petition to implement a mercy rule in soccer.
The second half opened up with a string of Santa Barbara attacks, but their efforts were no match for freshman goalkeeper Andrew Fontein, who was named the Big West Tournament MVP.
In the 76th minute, Gauchos leading scorer Chris Pontius did manage to add his name to the score sheet after the referee awarded Santa Barbara a penalty kick, which resulted from a UCI handball in the penalty area.
With less than one minute remaining, UCI committed a foul inside the penalty box that led to another penalty kick. UCSB striker Nick Perera would score the goal, but it was simply too little too late.
As the final whistle blew, Anteater fans rushed the field and joined in celebration with their Big West champs.
Senior captain David Sias accepted the tournament trophy and made sure that all his teammates were with him before he raised it in the air.
Coach Kuntz emphasized the fact that his team has had a difficult time getting to this point, but he had no doubt that eventually they would get there.
“There is always that lingering question, when can we do it and when can we get there, and we haven’t been known as one of those teams that have been there,” Kuntz said. “It’s been hard to break that barrier, but I think this season people have been talking around the country about the possibilities of our team breaking through this year, so I think we have a lot more respect this season.”
The NCAA Tournament pairings and schedule will be announced on Monday at 3 p.m. on ESPN News. Join the team at the Student Center for the selection show.
Wednesday’s Semifinal Result: #8 UCI 1 vs. #15 UC Davis 0
To get to the final match against UCSB, UCI first took care of UC Davis 1-0 in the semifinal matchup.
It was a cracking start to the first half as Irving Garcia opened up the match with a shot coming in the 24th second of play. Garcia’s ability to maneuver his way through players while maintaining good ball control enabled him to create a shot, which managed to get by the keeper, but was then stopped by the post.
In the 11th minute of play Rafael Macedo almost put away the first goal of the match after receiving a chip pass from senior Matt Murphy.
Murphy assumed the role of the moderator, creating opportunities for his teammates on the offensive end of the field while getting back on defense to help in the Anteaters’ defensive efforts.
With the game still tied at zero, sophomore striker Amani Walker and Garcia put together a spectacular give-and-go play that nearly resulted in the game’s first goal.
However, with eight minutes remaining in the half, Macedo was able to thread a ball to Garcia just outside the penalty area. Garcia opened up a shot for himself and managed to find the back of the net.
“I was really excited. We had the chance to make history in the Big West, so I wanted to come out and give one hundred percent,” Garcia said.
Spencer Thompson, who suffered an ankle injury in the previous game, entered the match in the second half to see how he would hold up. He played a total of 13 minutes before being subbed out.
Thompson is feeling better and expects to play in the NCAA tournment opening round.
The majority of the second half was played at midfield, with both teams struggling to maintain possession of the ball.
“The second half was a very choppy game and not a pretty one, but you don’t always win pretty. In games like this, a tournament game, it doesn’t matter. You just need the result,” said Kuntz.
Andrew Fontein had another solid performance with a crucial save coming in the 87th minute, stopping Davis striker Dylan Curtis. from leveling the match.
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