NCAA Tourney Bound: Sweet Redemption

Marlin Agoub/New University

UCI 3, UCSB 2 (2OT)

Battling through cold weather and a wet pitch, UC Irvine’s men’s soccer team (16-5-1) managed to emerge as the 2011 Big West Tournament winner after coming back from a 2-1 deficit within the last two minutes of the game. Last season, UCI was upset by Cal State Fullerton in the Big West semifinals and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, despite finishing the season with a 14-3-3 record. The victory over UC Santa Barbara not only crowns UCI, but also grants them an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m just happy we’re going to the NCAA Tournament,” Big West Tournament MVP senior Miguel Ibarra said. “We just want to experience it.  Yeah, I’m happy.”

Each team had a fair amount of chances at goal in the first half, but it was UCI that broke through with the opening goal. In the 39th minute, senior Christian Hernandez fed the ball to sprinting sophomore Christopher Santana on the right wing. Santana dribbled to just right of the box and drilled a shot into the right corner of the net, giving UCI the early lead.

The game grew heated as the Gauchos applied heavier pressure against UCI’s offense in the second half, easily disrupting Anteater passes. Several ’Eaters expressed their displeasure towards the referees over questionable fouls.

The Gaucho’s pressure led Irvine to squander key possessions. UCSB broke through the UCI defense and started firing away. With 27 minutes left in the second half, UCSB got the ball into UCI’s box through a corner kick, but once one of UCSB’s players received the ball, he was slide-tackled from behind by senior Bello Alhassan. UCSB received a penalty kick and the Gauchos tied the game at one.

UCI rushed their pace as fewer passes found its direction in UCSB’s half. However, a questionable foul was called on Ibarra in the 66th minute after he boxed out his defender to receive a long pass. Ibarra argued with the ref and was consequentially given the yellow card, drawing ire. Two free kicks later, UCSB took its only lead of the game in the 67th minute. After UCSB’s Dom Sarle  received a free kick pass from outside the box, he slotted the ball past goalkeeper Andrew Fontein.

The Anteaters fought back aggressively and with less than five minutes left in the game. Hernandez won a free kick outside the box. The UCSB goalkeeper fumbled the ball in midair and  sophomore Enrique Cardenas tapped it in for what he thought was the game-tying goal. However, the referees rushed onto the field to look the at seemingly hurt UCSB goalkeeper who was acting out the performance of a lifetime. The referees ruled that the ball was kicked in while it was already in the goalkeeper’s hands, cancelling the goal.

The demoralizing call did not hinder the Anteaters from pushing forward. In the 88th minute, UCI pulled off a comeback. Cardenas headed the ball into the top right corner of the goal from a throw-in to force overtime. It was Cardenas’ first goal since coming back from an injury he sustained one month ago.

The game remained deadlocked at two apiece until the beginning of the second overtime period. Freshman Cameron Iwasa dribbled past several defenders and found some space. The shot went off the left post, but found its way to a streaking Ibarra who pushed the ball in for the golden goal.

“It was a definite physical game. We knew that coming in [the game] though,” said junior Everett Pitts. “Santa Barbara was a physical team so we got ourselves ready for them.”

UCI 2, UCR 0

The UC Irvine men’s soccer team came up big on Nov. 9, securing their spot in the Big West Tournament Final by defeating the UC Riverside Highlanders in a 2-0 shutout at Anteater Stadium.

The last time these two teams faced off, the Anteaters’ Senior Night celebration was spoiled by an underdog UCR team. Irvine would get their revenge on this night.

The ’Eaters game plan on Wednesday: score early and often. They were able to perfectly execute that, as it would only take 35 seconds to score their first goal. On the Anteaters’ first possession, right back Marco Franco was able to dribble the ball from midfield, down the far sideline into Highlander territory, and make an accurate cross to freshman Cameron Iwasa, who headed it in past the Highlander keeper. The Anteaters took control of the game.

“The guys were pretty upset last time. The seniors were really upset,” said Coach Kuntz. “We watched the game and we felt like we could expose them in certain spaces. We worked on a lot of flank play this week to get crosses in and it worked. We knew we could expose them.”

Irvine would keep their foot on the gas for the entire first half. In the 14th minute Iwasa almost scored his second goal of the game after senior Miguel Ibarra was able to break away from the defense. In the 18th minute Bello Alhassan nearly scored his first goal of the season after taking the ball the distance of the field and firing a shot on goal.

The Anteaters’ aggressive approach would pay off in 31st minute. After a throw-in from the near sideline, the ball bounced around before senior Christian Hernandez found sophomore Tarek Morad at the top of the box, where he would place the ball perfectly off the right post and past the UCR keeper. For Morad, it was his first goal of the season.

The Anteaters would continue to put pressure on UCR’s defense, all the way up to the final seconds of the half as both, freshman Juan Gutierrez and sophomore Enrique Cardenas nearly extended Irvine’s lead before half. Irvine would go into the locker room at half with 2-0 lead.

The second half was dominated by Irvine’s defense, keeper Andrew Fontein, and physical play. Irvine’s defense was on their toes all night, thwarting every Highlander attack. Every time UCR would get into Anteater territory, Irvine defenders were in perfect position to steal the possession or clear the ball away from any threatening danger.

When the Highlanders did get shots on goal, Fontein responded with the excellent play that he demonstrated all season. UCR’s inability to penetrate the ’Eaters defense would lead to some physical play caused by the Highlander’s apparent frustration.

“They got a big ol’ chip on their shoulder,” admitted Kuntz. “They wanted this game, we wanted this game. We’re at home. The guys have a lot to play for and they’re excited for it.”