Commanding the tempo of the match for the majority of the first half of their final non-conference match against the San Francisco Dons at Anteater Stadium late Saturday evening, the UC Irvine men’s soccer team (5-3-1) looked to be in top shape to run away with a three match winning shutout streak heading into conference play.
When junior midfielder Ivan Canales fought around his defender, spun, and tucked one past the keeper’s left post in the 16th minute, it seemed as though the aggressors were certain to bring that victory into fruition.
However, the momentum left in the second half as quickly as it had come in the first with the Dons scoring an unexpected goal that was followed shortly after with another successful strike that would shock the ‘Eaters and sway the match to a 2-1 decision going towards USF’s favor.
“The reality is that we are a work in progress and we need to do a better job capitalizing on our opportunities,” head coach Yossi Raz said of his team’s loss Saturday. “I thought we produced tons of opportunities in the first half and we didn’t capitalize on it enough.”
UCI was explosive in the first half, harassing USF’s backline with rapid-fire shots, including a few of close calls from senior midfielder Giovanni Godoy and junior forward Luis Leon. By the end of the first 45, the ‘Eaters had tripled the Dons in shot attempts, 12-4.
After repeatedly tapping on the goal, it was only a matter of time before the ‘Eaters would eventually get over the hump and score. With Leon and Godoy also taking on solid chances, it just so happened that Canales would be the one to put the ‘Eaters’ over the top with a 16th minute unassisted conversion.
UCI did not celebrate for long as things soon went awry in the second half.
Evening out the shot attempts at four apiece, USF continued to battle and in the 51st minute, senior midfielder Aaron Lombardi leaked out ahead, caught himself in a one on one opportunity against UCI redshirt sophomore keeper Alex Waldron, and floated the ball over to equalize match and bring an end to a 218 minute shutout streak that the ‘Eaters had earned from drawing in scoreless victories in their last two matches.
Shaken by the abrupt equalizer, the ‘Eaters never quite found their footing while the Dons went on to use their newfound energy to drive their offensive forward.To the dismay of the ‘Eaters and their fans, the Dons came through with what would become the game-winner just five minutes later when they drove up the right wing and sent the dagger in on a relatively customary back pass and flip over the keeper.
“San Francisco is well coached and [they have] lots of talented players,” coach Raz said. “They felt like they were [always] in the game and they made a great game for themselves [so] they go home with the victory.”
Playing with a sense of desperation, UCI went heavily on the pursuit of the ball defensively on the next few possessions. This heightened, adrenaline-ladened play gave the ‘Eaters a final 89th minute Hail Mary as Leon received a clearance and sent a header that sailed high.
The upsetting conclusion to their preseason marks the up and down ride that the ‘Eaters have witnessed on the year thus far.
“Some moments we [have been] good and some moments we [have not been] so good,” coach Raz said of his team’s overall performance during non-conference play. “Before this game we had nice averages [and] after the game, not so much. But that is how soccer goes [and] that’s how the season goes. We need to get better to be more consistent with our game.”
UCI will have to regroup quickly as they are set to kick off conference play tomorrow when they travel to Davis for a 4:00pm start.
“[The Big West] is a tough conference where anybody could beat anybody in a given day,” coach Raz said. “We want to get better [and] so we need to work hard in practices to enhance our ability in certain areas…some of it is in transition, some of it is in build up, and some of it is in how we defend. We have a difficult task right away against lots of seniors at Davis and we need to show up.”