SMC 2, UCI 1
It’s over. On a cold rainy night, the UC Irvine men’s soccer team suffered a frustrating loss on Nov. 20 as their hopes of making it to the 2011 College Cup came to an abrupt end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After missing out completely on the tournament last season, UCI’s return to the NCAA met a bitter end. In the 103rd minute into second overtime, St. Mary’s Justin Howard knocked in a soft header that caught senior Andrew Fontein off-guard as he saw the end of his college career come too soon. The Anteaters were 16-6-1 this season and were certain to beat the Gaels who held a 10-6-5 record, but ultimately the Gaels pulled off an upset with their physical style of play.
“We worked hard to get to this point,” said Head Coach George Kuntz. “It’s sad to see a team this good not get nationally known.”
The Gaels opened up aggressively in the first half, as Julian Godinez took two shots at 2:37 and 3:52 to put Fontein on his feet. Things did not turn to Irvine’s favor as senior Miguel Ibarra limped off the field 12 minutes into the game, having played with the pain that he sustained from a tackle he received in the fifth minute. Sophomore Enrique Cardenas came in to replace Ibarra.
“I tried to play through it, but I felt a sharp pain in my knee,” said Ibarra. “All I was thinking was I needed to carry my team and get that goal.”
The Anteaters’ offense lacked dynamic ever since Ibarra’s departure, failing to create numerous quality shots at goal. Freshman Lester Hayes III received most of the passes up top, but he failed to create an opportune chance as he kept losing the ball in nearly every touch.
Cardenas and senior Christian Hernandez almost orchestrated the opening goal when Cardenas ran the ball up the open space down the middle. At the edge of the middle of the box, Cardenas slipped a pass to Hernandez who then passed a low cross to a streaking Iwasa. Unfortunately, Hernandez’s pass found it’s way to the goalkeeper’s gloves.
The two teams remained tied at zero until 12 minutes into the second half when SMC drew first blood. Riley Hanley of SMC managed to get a rebound off a corner from outside the box and drilled a low shot to the right inside post to put the Gaels up 1-0.
With Ibarra back on the field, the Anteaters’ offense finally found its rhythm, effectively combining passes on the wings and finding quality chances.
In the 66th minute, Sophomore Christopher Santana dribbled down the left wing, evading defenders and took a curling shot at goal. Unfortunately the goal barely touched the post and went wide. In the 82nd minute, sophomore Marco Franco dribbled down the left in the same manner as Santana and took a curving shot towards goal from the left of the box. The ball curved towards the post as if it were to go in, but instead it hits the top corner of the right post and bounced off.
The ’Eaters kept their championship hopes alive in the 83rd minute when Ibarra found space thanks to a scrum inside the box after a corner kick to drill a low shot for the game-tying goal.
The Gaels came away with the victory three minutes into the second overtime. After saving a shot in the 102nd minute, Fontein failed to react as he watched the UCI defense miss three opportunities to clear the ball out of the box after a SMC corner kick until Justin Howard’s head hit the ball into the back of the net.
“We haven’t been the best in the air this year,” said Kuntz about his defense. “But you that it’s about being in the right place.”
The Irvine defense looked lost when the ball repeatedly deflected off the players, and the lack of alertness in those moments caught the team off-guard when the 5-foot-8-inch Justin Howard scored the game-winner.
Overall, UC Irvine seemed to play a more fluid game of soccer than St. Mary, having better passes and combination plays than the Gaels. However, St. Mary used their physicality to their advantage, disrupting UCI’s rhythm and boxing them out from getting to the ball. Nevertheless, UCI looked like the better team and this loss is something that Kuntz and the team will have a hard time accepting. It wasn’t humbling, it was frustrating.
“For soccer, you want to see a team with a nice style go further, but tonight the other team played more effectively,” said Kuntz. “Our thirst is unquenched to get to the national final.”