On a wet, slick field, the UCSB men’s soccer team proved to be too fast for visiting Cal State Northridge on Saturday night in the Big West Conference Tournament semifinals.
Will Baynham scored his seventh goal of the season in the 24th minute and Rodney Michael added his fifth in the 29th to give the Gauchos a 2-0 win over the Matadors at Harder Stadium. UCSB will advance to its first conference tournament title match since 2015 on Friday afternoon at UC Davis.
The Aggies beat Cal State Fullerton, 2-0, on Saturday to earn the right to host the championship match.
“It was a really good night for us,” Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg said. … “It’s a huge advantage, obviously, to not have to play on Wednesday night like Northridge had to do, and then have to show up here.
“It was very important for us to get goals in the first half. I thought the first goal was big and I thought the second goal was the best goal of the season.”
Vom Steeg felt that way because UCSB put together a 17-pass attack before senior defender Noah Billingsley played a beautiful cross from the left to just outside the 6-yard box, where an unmarked Michael headed the ball into a wide-open goal.
“We put a lot of good passes together and had a lot of good touches (on that attack), and finished off with a ball at the back post,,” Vom Steeg added. “Overall, a very, very good night for us. We’re excited because I think that does enough for us in terms of making it into the NCAA playoffs, but we still have one game here in the Big West at Davis.
“I think it will be an exciting game for us to go up and play at Davis.”
When the Gauchos head north for Friday’s conference championship match at Davis at 2 p.m., they will do so with a much healthier team than the one they had on Oct. 23, when they got out of Aggie country with a 1-1 draw.
“I felt like the last time we went up there, we had nobody (in terms of depth),” Vom Steeg said. “I’m going back up to Davis with four starters that I didn’t have last time, so we’ll see if we can get a different result.
“It will be a tough game. It will be a big challenge for us, especially up there. I always think they have an advantage in the Big West Conference when pretty much all the teams play at night and they get every home game at two o’clock in the afternoon (because they don’t have lights). It almost feels like this weird kind of park setting. I’ve always thought it’s been an advantage for them, but it is what it is.”
After dominating possession early with an effective attack out wide, the Gauchos struck in the 24th when CSUN center back Scott Williams went down outside the Matadors’ 18-yard box after getting tangled up with Michael.
While Williams remained on the ground with a hamstring injury, Michael broke in from the right and slid a low cross to Baynham at the back post. With CSUN goalkeeper Paul Lewis out of position, Baynham had a simple redirect off the cross to give UCSB the only lead it would need.
“When the player went down with Rodney, I think he was just trying to keep up with Rodney,” Baynham said. “He tripped over Rodney and we were wondering whether it was offside or not.
“I just started toward the goal and Rodney picked me up, which was good.”
As the match moved along, heavy condensation continued to build, making the field wet and tricky.
Balls didn’t bounce as much as they skipped. Michael said it was a quick field that played right into what the Gauchos wanted to do.
“Actually, I think it was better for us because we talked about playing with a high tempo and moving the ball around pretty quickly,” Michael said. “I think with the wet field, it really helped us move the ball around quicker than we normally do.”
Vom Steeg also praised his team’s defensive effort, which was led by center backs Faouzi Taieb and Hunter Ashworth.
Anytime the Matadors played a cross into the Gauchos’ 18-yard box, one of those two was usually there to clear it. Billingsley was also outstanding at left back and Kavian Kashani gave UCSB a terrific performance at right back
“Santa Barbara, on the back line, is just excellent,” CSUN coach Terry Davila said. “I don’t think they have a weak spot. You’ve got to almost play your perfect game and things have got to go your way against them.
“I think Santa Barbara is one of the best teams we’ve played besides Washington. They can play on the wings, they can play through the middle, they can play direct, they can kill you on set pieces. You’ve got to be really prepared for them.”
UCSB goalkeeper Ben Roach made four saves for his 10th shutout of the season.
The Gauchos (12-3-4) finished with 11 shots, which included five on frame.