For the first time since 2015, the UCSB men’s soccer team is moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
Off a successful penalty kick by senior midfielder Thibault Candia in the 65th minute and two spectacular second-half saves by sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach, the Gauchos defeated the California Golden Bears, 3-1, in an NCAA first-round game on Thursday night at Harder Stadium.
After senior forward Rodney Michael gave UCSB a 1-0 lead with his sixth goal of the season in the 18th minute, Cal got the equalizer on a rebound goal by Christian Gomez in the 39th. It stayed that way until the 65th minute, when Bears goalkeeper Drake Callender failed to clear a ball from the edge of his 6-yard box. Michael jumped at the chance to score with the ball on his right foot, but Callender fouled him in the 18-yard box, which resulted in the Gauchos’ fourth penalty kick of the season.
Candia made it the game winner when he slid a low shot inside the right post for his seventh goal of the season. Senior forward Will Baynham put the finishing touches on the victory for the Gauchos when he scored his eighth of the campaign in the 73rd.
It was UCSB’s first win over Cal in the regular season or the postseason since 2003, and it was a result that sends the Gauchos to No. 12 seed St. Mary’s for a second-round game on Sunday afternoon.
“This is the NCAA playoffs, and it’s been a few years since we’ve been here, so I think it was exciting,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “I asked the players last practice how many of them had actually played in an NCAA playoff game? We had like three.
“This was an exciting time for this group to get this opportunity. They worked hard to get here.”
Ever since the final whistle of last Friday’s dud of a performance at UC Davis in the Big West Conference Tournament championship match, the Gauchos have been chomping at the bit to get in front of another opponent.
They not only avenged last Friday’s 2-0 loss against the Aggies, but they got even with the Bears, who defeated UCSB, 3-0, on Sept. 7 at Harder Stadium.
“I thought the motivation we had tonight was driven by the disappointment that we had against Davis last Friday,” Vom Steeg added. “I thought that we responded appropriately to what I thought was not a good performance by us.
“We bounced tonight and I also think we play great at home.”
UCSB improved to 8-3-1 at home this season and 13-2-0 at Harder Stadium in NCAA Tournament games.
“That helped to be at home,” Vom Steeg said.
“We got great goalkeeping, which has been a consistent theme, and then we broke on them. Overall, it was a great effort and I’m very, very proud of this group.”
Candia, who is from France, was asked about his successful penalty kick, which made the Gauchos 3-for-4 this season from the 10-yard spot. He waited for several minutes to attempt the PK after Michael was injured and laid on the ground after being wiped out by the Cal goalkeeper.
“A PK is hard, I feel, even if I don’t have to wait for it, but tonight I had to wait for it,” Candia said. “You have to be in your zone and not focusing on what people are saying around you.
“The keeper started talking to me, saying they watched film of my PKs and knew where I was going to kick the ball.”
In other words, it was soccer’s version of trash talking.
But it didn’t work, and Vom Steeg offered up an explanation as to why it failed.
“I was just going to add that it helps that he didn’t understand a word they were saying to him,” UCSB’s 21st-year coach quipped. “They might have been talking to him, but unless they were speaking some French to him, I don’t think it worked.
“He knew they were talking about something to him.” Vom Steeg concluded with a chuckle.
Candia also assisted on Michael’s first-half goal when he slipped a perfect through ball that Michael finished with a hard, low shot from the left inside the far post.
After Candia’s successful penalty kick, Cal went on the offensive and nearly leveled the match in the 68th.
Jonathan Estrada had a point blank shot from the top of the 6-yard box on a rebound. But Roach miraculously stopped it with his left arm to push the ball and the threat aside.
“I made that one big save after we scored on the PK to go up 2-1, and I thought that was a big factor for us,” Roach said. “If I didn’t save that, it probably would have reset the game and it would have given it a whole different look.”
After Baynham’s goal gave the Gauchos a 3-1 lead in the 73rd, Roach made a phenomenal save on a left-footed blast from 8 yards on the right by Taylor Davila in the 90th minute. Once again, he stopped it by extending his left arm.
UCSB had three starters on the defensive back line that it didn’t have in its loss to Cal on Sept. 7.
Center backs Faouzi Taieb and Hunter Ashworth, along with outside back Noah Billingsley saw Cal for the first time this season. Those three, along with outside back William Gillingham, were a dynamic force in the back for the Gauchos. Those four, along with the rest of the players who stepped on the pitch for UCSB, did a fine job in overcoming last Friday’s defeat at Davis.
As a result, the Gauchos get another trip to Northern California for Sunday’s second-round match at St. Mary’s.