WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — All UCSB men’s soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg could do was stare out at the field on a chilly night at Spry Stadium.
It was the end of the Gauchos’ NCAA Tournament quarterfinal game against Wake Forest, and it was the end of UCSB’s fabulous season. Alistair Johnston’s unassisted goal in the 44th minute — just one minute before halftime — was all the Demon Deacons needed to defeat the Gauchos, 1-0, on Saturday night before 2,027 fans in attendance.
UCSB’s bid to return to the College Cup for the first time since 2006 went by the board. Despite having four quality scoring chances, the Gauchos (15-5-4) couldn’t put one away.
“Soccer is a game where you have to finish the opportunities. You need something to happen for you,” Vom Steeg said. “We had our one big chance against Indiana last Sunday, and Will (Baynhum) buried it (in the second overtime).
“Tonight, we had our three or four chances — we actually had more chances tonight than we did against Indiana — and we didn’t finish it. That’s the sport. Unfortunately, we gave up that goal.”
UCSB put forth a tremendous effort throughout the second half to get the equalizer, but the Wake Forest defense was up to the task.
The Demon Deacons (16-4-2) also did an excellent job of controlling the ball with their effective passing. Wake Forest had possession of the ball 55 percent of the time compared to 45 percent for UCSB.
“We battled for the whole game,” Vom Steeg said. “It’s 1-0 at Wake Forest and we’re battling with three minutes left to go to get that tying goal. I told the players when we started this playoff run that as long as they gave me everything thing they had, that’s all I could ask for.
“It’s not going to be our talent, we’re talented enough to be here. It’s going to be our workrate and our energy. Consistently, they gave it to me. They threw themselves all over the field tonight to stay with Wake Forest and give ourselves a chance.”
UCSB had to play without starting center back Hunter Ashworth, who was suspended for the match after picking up his eighth yellow card of the season in the Gauchos’ previous playoff match at Indiana.
Vom Steeg admitted the loss of Ashworth hurt, especially when Wake Forest scored its goal. Johnston picked up a ball in the right flat of the attacking third of the field. He then dribbled in, collected the ball again after it went off a UCSB defender, and shot it past Gaucho goalkeeper Ben Roach from eight yards out. As UCSB’s left center back, Ashworth would have been positioned in the area in which Johnston dribbled to get his shot.
“We just got unlucky on the goal,” Vom Steeg said. “It just came out of nowhere and it came with one minute before half.You expend a lot of energy, you go into halftime not even zero-zero, but down 1-0.”
Wake Forest’s best defense in the second half was its offense, and its ability to control the ball.
“The second half was a little predictable. I knew Wake Forest would get on the ball,” Vom Steeg said. “I knew at some point they would kind of have their moments because I thought we had most of the first half.
“Obviously, that’s what they did. They got on the ball in the second half and we got stuck having to chase the game a little bit because we’re down 1-0.”
Senior midfielder Thibault Candia had UCSB’s first two quality chances in the first half with a 20-yard shot that sailed just wide of the right post, and a one-on-one from 12 yards with Demon Deacons goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg. Candia shot it low and hard, but Pannenberg went down to make a top-notch save.
“We lost the ball there and I saw (Candia) coming and I just tried to get the best angle I could,” Pannenberg said. “I just wanted to make myself big when he shot it, and, fortunately, I saved it.”
Candia was asked about the one-on-one chance he had in the 24th minute.
“From what I remember, I beat their left center back and got into the (18-yard) box,” he said. “I tried to slow down to wait for a teammate to pass to, but their defense knew what I was doing, so I only had one choice, and that was to take a shot.
“I thought I might be able to kick the ball between the keeper’s legs … but he made a good save.”
Pannenberg also saved a hard header by Noah Billingsley in the 40th minute, and a 10-yard shot by Baynham in the 80th minute.
Wake Forest didn’t have an easy time with UCSB — the only unseeded team remaining in the tournament — and Demon Deacons coach Bobby Muuss made that abundantly clear after the game.
“UCSB, in my opinion, was one of the best teams we’ve played all year, if not in the last couple of seasons,” he said. … “We dodged some bullets.”
The Gauchos outshot the Demon Deacons, 10-8, with four shots on frame that Pannenberg saved. UCSB sophomore goalkeeper made four saves, all on difficult chances.
“It’s pretty unbelievable the run we’ve had through the NCAA Tournament,” Roach said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t put one in the back of the net tonight. I thought we played really well, defensively, the whole game.
“But one little lapse in our focus caused us to concede a goal right before halftime, and that, ultimately, cost us the game.”
The Gauchos beat Cal, St. Mary’s and Indiana to get to the Elite Eight for the first time in 13 years.