At this point in the season, it seems cocky to believe that UC Irvine men’s soccer can easily nab a Big West title without breaking a sweat. With a 5-2 record at first place in the Big West, UCI hasn’t won by much, despite leading the conference.
Marco Franco and Bello Alhassan proved to be the most formidable wingback pair in the Big West due to their ability to shutdown wingers and aid the attack while Andrew Fontein has remained composed in the goal, recording five shutouts this season.
Unfortunately, injuries and fatigue have finally caught up to a team that prides itself on its conditioning and up-tempo style. Their pace has slowed and their combination pass play hasn’t been as crisp as it was in the beginning of the season. Coach George Kuntz’s willingness to take on tougher non-conference opponents has revealed its drawbacks as the heavy travel and packed schedule has worn UCI down.
Enrique Cardenas’ injury was a major blow to the team’s offensive options as UCI has been playing without their second highest scorer, leading Kuntz to hand freshmen Lester Hayes III and Cameron Iwasa more playing time. Although the team has been able to score at least two goals per game since Cardenas’ injury at Santa Barbara, an apparent lack of stamina and soreness has affected the team’s explosiveness, resulting in lethargic turnovers and poor finishing.
With three games left in the regular season, UCI needs to persevere a little more to preserve their lead in the Big West with whatever fuel they have left. They will be facing familiar foes, but at different grounds.
UCI vs. CSUN
The last time Northridge and Irvine met, Cal State University, Northridge left befuddled as two defensive miscues led to a 2-0 UCI victory. With a 3-3 record in the Big West, CSUN have proven themselves with big wins against UC Davis (3-0), CSUF — ranked in the top 20 at the time — (3-0), Big West stalwart Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (2-0), and No. 7 UCLA (3-2).
Yet Northridge is prone to costly defensive errors. Prior to their victory over UCLA, the Matadors lost 2-1 to UC Riverside, blowing a one-goal lead in the last five minutes of the game and conceding back-to-back goals. CSUN also lost 2-1 to UC Davis in a rematch, conceding turnovers in their own penalty box twice and handing UC Davis easy goals.
Although UCI will face CSUN at home this time, the ’Eaters shouldn’t be assured that a home-field advantage means anything. All of the major upsets pulled by CSUN have been on the road. UCI will need to be on their guard against CSUN’s creative offense, especially midfielder Carlos Benavides, who has collected seven assists with penetrating passes this season. However, if CSUN brings a messy defense, expect UCI to pacify the Matador’s giant-killing ability.
Verdict: UCI 2, CSUN 1
UCI vs. UCR
Do not be deceived. Although UC Riverside beat UC Santa Barbara at home, it does not mean the Highlanders that once lost 5-1 to UCI are improved. Although UCSB has been a powerhouse in college soccer for the past few years, this season they have failed to live up to expectations and are 2-4 in the Big West.
It’s easy to discount the Highlanders’ victory over the Gauchos. UCR has proved that they can defeat the bottom-dwelling teams in the Big West, but they have also lost to tough teams, including: Cal Poly, UC Davis, and Cal State Fullerton. They’re average at best.
Since UCI owns a lopsided victory over UCR on the road, don’t expect any miracles or upsets from the Highlanders at Anteater Stadium. UCI’s key to victory depends on how attacking midfielders Miguel Ibarra and Christian Hernandez play. Even if UCR manages to contain those two, the creativity of right back Marco Franco and the speed of Christopher Santana will be too much for the Highlanders to handle.
Although UCR has a dangerous striker in Cesar Diaz Pizarro, outside of him, they don’t possess a key player who can create offense consistently. If UCI heavily marks the Highlanders’ main threat, don’t expect UCR to keep up with the Anteaters.
Verdict: UCI 3, UCR 0
UCI vs. Cal Poly SLO
UCI will be hungry for revenge in this matchup. The ’Eaters cannot forget the bitter 1-0 upset they suffered at home in their Big West Conference opener. What better way to finish the regular season than with retribution? Cal Poly was one of the few teams that forced UCI to play to their strengths, even with one player ejected. After scoring a penalty the first time the two teams met, the Mustangs used their physicality and coordinated defense to clog up the middle and force UCI to attack from the wings.
Even though UCI had the speed to outrun Cal Poly, the ’Eaters’ speed was rendered useless as the Mustangs locked down their defensive line and held the Anteaters scoreless.
UCI has faced similar defenses over the course of the season, but have failed to show much creativity and improvement.
The Mustangs do not feature a sophisticated offense like that of UCI, but nevertheless they can be dangerous. Cal Poly will look for the first strike and attempt to hinder UCI’s offense with similar tactics that helped them upset UCI in their first meeting. At this point in the season, fatigue is factored in. It will likely be a tight match for both teams as they push for that game-winning goal. The first team to score will win.
Verdict: UCI 0, Cal Poly SLO 1