‘The sky’s the limit’
It was a terrific start to the week for the UCSB men’s soccer team. The Gauchos learned on Monday that they are as high as No. 12 in one of the four national polls.
That’s where UCSB currently sits in the Top Drawer Soccer top-25 poll, and the Gauchos look to strengthen their position as one of the nation’s elite teams tonight, when they host UC Riverside at Harder Stadium at 7 p.m.
UCSB is coming off a 5-0 throttling of No. 14 Cal State Fullerton on the road on Saturday night, and is currently unbeaten in its last 10 matches. The last time the Gauchos lost was Sept. 7 at home — a 3-0 setback to Cal.
Since then it’s been eight wins — including two in a row to open Big West Conference play — and two draws.
Through all the injuries and the loss of their two captains, Noah Billingsley and Hunter Ashworth for nearly a month when they were competing with their New Zealand U23 team in Olympic qualifying, the Gauchos are a remarkable 9-2-2. Even a number of the UCSB players are surprised at the great results in the face of a lot of adversity.
“Obviously, Hunter and I were ecstatic with how the boys did without us,” said Billingsley, who had a career-high three assists in Saturday’s win at Fullerton. “They’ve really stepped it up. I think this is the first season since I’ve been here where I can say we’re playing to our full potential.
“I still think there are a few little things we can tighten up, but right now it feels like the sky’s the limit. As we saw on Saturday, we can do anything.”
Having the ability to do anything will require the Gauchos to slow up a dangerous midfield attack from UC Riverside tonight.
The Highlanders (6-5-2, 1-1 Big West), in the estimation of UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg, are very well organized in midfield, and they are a concern in the final-third of the field with Roberto Garcia-Vargas and Hugo Magana Jr. leading the attack.
Each player has three goals and they have combined to score almost half of the Highlanders’ goals this season. UCR has scored 13 while allowing 13. After getting off to a 5-1 start, Riverside has hit some bumps in the road, scoring just four times in its last seven matches.
The Highlanders are just 1-4-2 in the span. But they are still capable, in Vom Steeg’s opinion, of handing the Gauchos their first loss in more than a month if the players aren’t on their game.
“They’ve always been a tough team that plays hard and competes, and most years they have one or two players who can hurt you. This year is no exception,” Vom Steeg said. “They’re going to come in and they’re going to play tough, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to compete for 90 minutes, or however long it goes on.”
UCSB has done extremely well at Harder Stadium in Vom Steeg’s 21 seasons on the job.
The Gauchos have a staggering .731 winning percentage (147-46-26) since Vom Steeg came along in 1999.
One of the home losses, however, was to Riverside in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament in 2017.
While it was two years ago and the personnel has changed for both teams, that year’s Gaucho side learned the hard way about what can happen with the Highlanders at Harder Stadium. UCSB’s 2017 season ended with that 1-0 loss to UCR.
So far this season, Big West Conference teams have done well protecting their home turf.
“Conference wins at home are critical, and, of course, it’s played out that way,” Vom Steeg said. “We were the only team to pick up a road win (Saturday at Fullerton) during the first two rounds of play.
“(Tonight) is a home game for us, and we need to try to keep doing the things we’ve been doing and not take for granted anything that has happened before. We need to have a really good approach to the game (tonight), and we will be challenged by their midfield play.”
Some other points of interest with the Gauchos include goalkeeper Ben Roach.
The former All-American at Santa Barbara High has played every minute of the season so far, which has him at 1,225 minutes. That ranks fourth in minutes played by any player in the country. Freshman midfielder Finn Ballard McBride leads UCSB with six goals, as the Gauchos have outscored their opponents, 29-15. That includes a 7-0 advantage in the first two conference games. UCSB begins play tonight tied for first in the Big West with UC Davis. Both sides are 2-0-0 in conference play.
Tonight’s game begins at 7 p.m.