The UC Irvine men’s soccer team fell victim to one of the harshest realities of the sport on Saturday night in Queens, New York.
The 14th-seeded Anteaters fell to 3rd-seeded St. John’s University 3-1 in the Sweet 16 match-up after entirely outplaying St. John’s in the second half.
Soccer is the perhaps the only sport where a team can dominate and still lose. It is usually when the team that dominates cannot finish at the net and the inferior team makes the most of its few opportunities that a swing of events like this takes place.
St. John’s is far from being considered inferior; they are now 18-2-3 on the year and are a perfect 11-0 at home. Goalkeeper Neal Kitson leads a stingy Red Storm defense that has recorded 15 clean sheets on the season. St. John’s boasts players from all over the world, including Norway, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Sweden, to name a few.
The Anteaters, making their first Sweet 16 appearance in school history, knew they had to play a team with a style similar to Cal Poly, and in freezing territory.
However, it did not take much time for the Anteaters to adjust to the weather as they struck first in the 14th minute. Junior Irving Garcia extended his six-game streak of recording at least one point in a match by sending a beautiful cross to sophomore forward Amani Walker, who masterfully headed the ball into far post.
After UCI struck early, St. John’s settled down and put UCI out of their game. St. John’s was certainly more fine-tuned for their style of play than Cal Poly, whom UCI beat 3-0 (see story below). They controlled possession for the rest of the half and often found themselves penetrating through the second to last line of Anteater defense. The ‘Eaters seemed to be playing kickball as they were forced to clear the ball every time a Red Storm pass came near the box. The UCI defense, lead by senior captain and Big West Defender of the Year David Sias, did not allow any shots on target.
The only time the Red Storm got a decent shot on target was in the 30th minute, when they knotted the score at one a piece on a header by Joel Gustafasson off a cross from Sverre Wegge Gundhus.
The Red Storm controlled possession for the remainder of the half as the Anteaters barely strung together any offense.
St. John’s continued the second half with the same display of ball retention with which they ended the first. However, after about 10 minutes, everything began to click for the Anteaters. Within the next 20 minutes, UCI strung together shots from Carlos Aguilar, Walker and Matt Murphy. Murphy had a couple golden opportunities to go astray due to some superb St. John’s defending, but the Anteaters looked to be the superior team as they kept the Red Storm in check.
Then in the 78th minute, St. John’s stunned UCI with an attack when Gundhus sent a shot to the net, only to see goalkeeper Andrew Fontein masterfully deny the shot. Fontein’s clearance, however, went astray as Trevor Chiduku headed the ball into the open net to make the score 2-1.
After UCI pushed its players up for more offense, St. John’s took advantage and Gundhus sent a beautiful pass from Nelson Becerra into the back of the net in the 83rd minute.
UCI did not give up, and continued its solid play as Garcia blasted a one-timer off a pass from Walker in the 85th minute to cut the deficit to one at 3-2.
It was too little too late, as St. John’s held on for the fortunate 3-2 victory and earned a berth in the elite eight to face Indiana University.
UCI out-shot St. John’s 14-9 in the match, with 11 of those shots coming in the second half.
The Anteaters certainly deserved to move on, but St. John’s capitalized on a few Anteater mistakes and that was the difference.
The Anteaters conclude the greatest season in program history with a program best 15-2-6 record, Big West regular season title, Big West Tournament title, and a Sweet 16 appearance.
UCI 3 Cal Poly 0
Before playing St. John’s, UC Irvine had to defeat Big West foe Cal Poly in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Tuesday at Anteater Stadium.
UCI and Cal Poly met once prior to the match, which resulted in a 1-1 tie at Cal Poly.
UCI was riding a five-game winning streak, and Cal Poly was coming off a 1-0 win over Pac-10 champ UCLA in a first round match-up.
To counter the stiff defensive style of the Cal Poly Mustangs, Coach George Kuntz had the Anteaters send a plethora of long passes to the Mustang side to force a change of play. The deviation from the regular gunning UCI offensive style resulted in some lopsided play in the first half. Cal Poly looked to be controlling much of the possession, while the rusty Anteaters failed to gain momentum. Fortunately, Sias and company denied any Mustang goals and had the game tied 0-0 at halftime.
UCI went back to its normal style and dominated in the second half. UCI might as well be called “UC Irving,” as Irving Garcia tallied two goals in the 59th and 71st minutes, the first coming off a pass from Amani Walker and the second off a failed back-pass to Mustang goalkeeper and Big West Goalie of the Year Eric Franco.
As it began raining and the sold-out crowd of 2,500 in attendance at Anteater Stadium became soaked, Rafael Macedo and Spencer Thompson gave the crowd their money’s worth as Macedo buried a shot four-yards out off a pass from number four in the 74th minute to seal the game at 3-0.
UCI freshman goalkeeper Andrew Fontein fended off a couple late Cal Poly attacks and finished the game with five saves.
It was the first NCAA tournament game for the Anteaters and their first tournament victory.
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