Men’s Soccer Loses in Big West Final Off Penalty Kicks

By: Juan Gonzalez

UC Irvine (14-5-3) failed to defend their Big West crown to Cal State Fullerton (10-7-6) in a game that went to a penalty shootout, 0-0 (PK 3-2). In a really tight game that had both teams shooting over 15 shots, the dreaded penalty kicks decided the victor and the Champion of the Big West Conference.

Irvine senior Cameron Iwasa led his team in this offensive battle as he recorded five shots on the night, and often set his teammates up for good opportunities. Goalkeeper Michael Breslin was tested, as he had eight saves and one blocked shot in the penalty shootout.  For 110 minutes, it was a game filled with a flurry of shots by both teams that could not find the net in regulation and in overtime.

UCI started off the first half by controlling the game for the first 10 minutes. They were shutting down Fullerton on defense, whose team had no shots in the first 10 minutes of the game. Cal State Fullerton Coach George Kuntz urged his team to play more aggressively and pressure the ball, as they soon had 4 shots in the next five minutes. The Titans played their best on the counter attack, as they used their speed and dribbling skills to get past some Irvine defenders.

UCI defender Jack Birkenbeuel was given a yellow card in the 23rd minute, as he had a tough time trying to stop Fullerton’s counters and took a foul to prevent a scoring opportunity for the Titans. Titan senior Mark Fenelus was up and down the field the entire game with his incredible speed and ball-handling skills against the ‘Eater defense, giving them trouble on the recovery.

The first half ended with Irvine looking to score off a corner kick in the 41st minute, in which UCI sophomore Michael Sperber shot directly to Fullerton’s goalkeeper.

In the second half, both teams came out playing aggressively and looking to score. Fullerton had the majority of their shots on goal in the second half with five out of their total eight on the game. Irvine had three out of their four shots on target in the second half. Irvine’s Gor Kirakosyan had a great opportunity to score in the 58th minute, but the ball sailed over the crossbar. In the 73rd minute, Iwasa had a great opportunity off a rebound, from a strong strike by Eduardo Calzada, but was negated by 6-foot-6 Titan Keeper Jeff Salt. The second half held both teams scoreless and promised an exciting ending in Anteater Stadium with overtime.

With fans from both sides cheering on their team to score the winning goal, tensions were high. Overtime saw UCI defending for the majority of the time against Fullerton’s attack. CSUF senior Ian Ramos almost put the game away with two minutes in OT, as his shot was too high from six yards out. Irvine gave a rugged defensive stand in overtime, deflecting 5 shots and marking 2 corner kicks. UCI goalkeeper Michael Breslin came up with a clutch save from a Fullerton free kick in the 106th minute. The game was still scoreless in 110 minutes, and the championship was still on the line and would be decided on penalty kicks.

Fullerton’s Goalkeeper Salt went into the game saving two penalties in the last three games. His height and impressive stature in length helped him perform well in the shootout. Salt blocked two penalties including the first, which put pressure on the ‘Eaters to block one themselves. After the first miss and score by Fullerton, Irvine’s Mats Bjurman made his shot, which was followed by a  Breslin save. Things were level in the shootout 1-1 and both teams made their next penalties, by Fullerton’s Coronado and UCI’s Iwasa. After Fullerton’s next shot made by Okai, it was a make-or-lose situation up next for Anteater Mario Ortiz. With the Titan fans on the visiting side already celebrating, the atmosphere was tense as everyone in attendance was on their feet. Ortiz took his shot and hit the left post that sealed the championship for Cal State Fullerton. This loss for the ‘Eaters ruined their title defense and a championship in two straight years. With their national performance, a #17 RPI and record of 14-5-3, against some great opponents earlier this season, the Anteaters are expected to have a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Cal State Fullerton head coach George Kuntz went against his former team from last season and won his second straight Big West championship.

“UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton will be a rivalry for many, many years,” said UCI head coach Chris Volk when asked about the game and the speculation that surfaced around it.

“The Season is not over,” said Cameron Iwasa. “It’s six games for a national championship, so it’s all business.”

UCI hopes to play a home game in the national tournament to feed off the crowd’s energy.

“We need that atmosphere for the post-season,” said Coach Volk of the fans in attendance, “The guys thrive on it.”

With the NCAA Tournament selections to be announced on Monday, the ‘Eaters look to continue their 2014-2015 campaign. The heartbreaking loss against Fullerton counts as a tie, final score 0-0, on the national scale, and still keeps the ‘Eaters hopes alive to compete for a national championship.