It was a heartbreaking end to a tremendous season for the UC Irvine Men’s soccer team Sunday evening as they were knocked out of the NCAA Soccer Tournament after losing to Stanford University 1-0.
Bruised, battered and beaten, the Anteaters offered spectators one of the most hard fought battles all season but were unable to give the 1800 fans anything to cheer about, just another anticlimactic end to a great season.
Irvine opened up the match with the intensity and fire they have demonstrated all season. Within the first seven minutes of play, the Anteaters had already created three promising opportunities but were unable to capitalize.
Irvine continued to dominate the majority of the first half, but fell victim to Daniel Leon’s unassisted goal in the 36th minute of play. With two Irvine defenders on him, Leon managed to thread the ball past both and get a seemingly impossible shot off from 25 yards out. Anteater fans held their breath as they watched sophomore keeper, Andrew Fontain stretch to deflect the shot, but was a split second too late as the ball sailed past his fingertips and made its way into the back of the net.
Stanford quickly pulled back their midfield players and implemented a defensive strategy to maintain their one goal lead.
“We [Stanford] defended a lot more because we had to,” Stanford Head Coach Bret Simon said on his strategic move. “UCI pushed a lot of people forward and made us have to drop our wings deeper to help.”
The second half lacked the sense of urgency that Irvine had opened the match with. They made lazy passes, failed to find open players and did not utilize the strength and height advantage they clearly had in their favor.
Stanford managed to shutdown Irvine’s top offensive weapon, senior forward Irving Garcia, by surrounding him with two Cardinal defenders every time he received possession of the ball. Garcia, who was named Big West Offensive Player of the Year, showcased his fancy footwork, but was unable to get any shots on goal.
With the clock quickly winding down, UCI recognized that they needed to pull something together fast if they had any intention of winning this game. With 18 minutes left to play it seemed as though the Irvine players kicked in their after burners and were able to direct shot after shot on goal.
Earning corner kicks, centering passes into the heart of the goal box and threading balls through the Stanford defense, Irvine was hungry to equalize the score.
Senior forward, Carlos Aguilar managed to find teammate Amani Walker in front of the opposition’s goal numerous times, but Walker was never able to redirect the ball past the keeper.
“I had to step it up, and I had to get the ball inside the box,” a teary-eyed Aguilar said. “We have Amani who is able to out jump a lot of the guys and get his head to the ball, but we weren’t able to connect tonight. It was a disappointing loss, but I just want to tell all my teammates and all the fans, thank you for an amazing season.”
Irvine head coach, George Kuntz, who managed to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament last year, explained how this loss was more heartbreaking than losing in New York last season.
“This loss was more painful because it was at home and it has been something that we have been trying to correct,” Kuntz said. “Stanford is a great team, but we felt that we could have matched them. They played well defensively. I am happy for our guys and the heart that they displayed tonight and the intensity they showed. I mean, we competed to the end. They really worked hard tonight.”
Although Irvine would have liked to be the team to face the number one ranked undefeated University of Akron team in the third round, they must leave the field looking forward to next season and the promise that it holds.