WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For the first time since 2006, the UCSB men’s soccer team is in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
That means the Gauchos are one win away from staying put for next week’s College Cup in Cary, N.C.
It’s a matchup today at No. 4 seed Wake Forest. And despite the Demon Deacons success this season with a 15-4-2 record — which includes an 11-1-2 mark at home — UCSB (15-4-4) is immensely confident in today’s match that kicks off at 2 p.m. PST.
After NCAA Tournament victories over Cal, St. Mary’s and Indiana, the Gauchos say they are not intimidated by Wake Forest and its national seed. In fact, Coach Tim Vom Steeg likes the matchup, and his team’s chances of returning to the College Cup for the first time in 13 years, and the third time in program history.
“I think we matchup well against this team,” Vom Steeg said. “They are one of the top, elite programs in the country, and they have been that way for a number of years, but I like our chances.
“We have a number of seniors on this team who bring experience, and I think what we’ve done so far in the playoffs with wins over Berkeley, St. Mary’s and Indiana, shows that we belong. “Like I’ve said before, it’s really more about us and what we’re able to do than it is anything else.”
If UCSB is successful against Wake Forest today, the team plans on staying in North Carolina for the College Cup that gets underway next Friday in Cary, N.C.
“It’s amazing to be in this position,” said Gaucho forward Will Baynham, who scored the game-winning goal in the second overtime at Indiana last Sunday. “We’ve looked forward to this chance all season because this is what we set out to do. We’ve gotten here, and we’re very excited and proud to be in this moment.”
Baynham says he and his teammates don’t feel any pressure today against one of the best teams in the country out of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I think, obviously, we’re the underdogs here, and there’s not really any pressure on us,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a strong team and everyone is going to put a strong shift in. We’ll see what happens.”
Senior center back Faouzi Taieb feels the same way. When it comes to being confident, the French standout defender says that’s the only way he and his teammates can be.
“We have to be confident,” Taieb said. “If we’re not confident, we’re going to lose the game. That’s not going to happen.
“I admit, the team we’re going to play is really good and they are confident. If we’re not confident in ourselves, they will eat us alive. But I can tell you, that won’t happen. We are very confident going into (today’s) game.”
One challenge the Gauchos will face today is the absence of senior center back Hunter Ashworth.
The 6-foot-4 defender will be unavailable for UCSB today because of a yellow-card accumulation. Ashworth picked up his eighth yellow card of the season against Indiana, which means a one-game suspension. Junior defender William Gillingham will take his place at left center back alongside Taieb, who is the right center back.
“Of course, I’m used to playing with Hunter, but I am also used to playing with Will,” Taieb said. “In the games I’ve played with Will at center back, we haven’t lost a game with him. We have never lost a game together as center backs.
“He’s been playing really well, so I think it will be good to play with him. We will certainly miss Hunter, but Will has been very good at that position, and I am confident we can work together in the back.”
A lot of college teams like to play the ball over the top from midfield into the attacking end of the field. Vom Steeg said Wake Forest is different. He expects them to play the ball along the ground, which is more of the conventional style of soccer played around the world. It’s why Vom Steeg believes his team matches up well against the Demon Deacons.
“Their style is a lot like UC Irvine, which likes to try to play through midfield,” Vom Steeg said. “I think we matchup well against that type of style. The problem with Wake Forest is, if you lose the ball, you’re going to spend the next 45 seconds to a minute trying to get it back.
“They are that technical and that good on the ball.”
With next week being Finals Week at UCSB, advancing to the Final Four would have the team spending its downtime studying and taking exams remotely.
But, before they get there, they have a big test to pass today.