DAVIS — On a chilly late afternoon at UC Davis, the UCSB men’s soccer team went through a one-hour training session on Thursday to warm up for today’s Big West Conference Tournament championship match against the No. 1 seeded Aggies.
The Gauchos (12-3-4), who tied UC Davis, 1-1, in Davis on Oct. 23, are looking to win the Big West Tournament title for the first time since 2010.
UCSB is the No. 2 seed for today’s 2 p.m. showdown. It marks the sixth time the top two seeds have met in the tournament final since the conference introduced its postseason event in 2008.
The winner receives an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, which gets underway next week.
In his 21st season at the helm, Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg is 100 percent certain both teams are in the NCAA Tournament regardless of today’s outcome. But he believes his team would receive a first-round bye and host a second-round NCAA match with a victory over the Aggies (12-4-2).
“If we win (today), we’ll be seeded in the NCAA Tournament,” Vom Steeg said. “We’re playing for everything today. Our postseason hopes for a run in the NCAA Tournament start at Harder Stadium, and if you don’t have to play the first game, then you’ve got a leg up.
“You also have to look at what are the other top teams, particularly on the West Coast. If we win (today), we can avoid three of them. If we want to avoid playing some of the top teams on the West Coast (in the first round), probably on the road, then we have to win (today).”
Both teams are rolling into the title match.
UCSB, since its Sept. 7 loss to Cal, is 11-1-4, while UC Davis is 9-1-1 since a loss at Pacific on Sept. 19. It’s no secret what strategy the two teams will use against each other today, since what they’ve been doing has been highly successful. The Aggies, according to Vom Steeg, will look to get throw-ins, free kicks and corner kicks in the attacking end of the field, where they are most dangerous with their size.
“They’re athletic and fast, especially up the field, and they have size,” Vom Steeg said. “When you make a mistake, this team can make you pay. I think they’re comfortable giving you most of the possession.
“I think that they’re comfortable with the fact you might be passing the ball around a lot, and seem to be controlling the game. What they’re waiting for is an opportunity to break (on a counter attack), or an opportunity to throw a ball in or get a set piece. When the game is done, they are not looking at the stats. They are looking at the final score.”
UCSB will have a much different look than it had when the teams played each other in late October.
The Gauchos were missing several key players on that hot, windy afternoon at Aggie Field. Among them were center back Faouzi Taieb and forward Rodney Michael, who were injured, and midfielder Sahid Conteh, who was suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season in the Gauchos’ previous match.
They, along with midfielder Thibault Candia — who got hurt in the Oct. 23 meeting with the Aggies — are back for today’s match.
“I’m excited that we’ll have our squad and we’ll be ready to go,” Vom Steeg said. “I like our chances (today).”
Another part of UC Davis’ game is to play balls over the top from midfield into the UCSB 18- or 6-yard box.
The Gauchos will be counting on sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach to stand tall when that happens, just like he did in the previous match against the Aggies, when he made nine saves.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a whole lot of pressure. It’s like Tim’s been telling me all week that I have to have a huge presence in the box,” said Roach, who has 10 shutouts this season and an impressive 0.90 goals-against average. “They are a big team, so I have to be able to punch (the ball) out, catch, and obviously release players up the field, because we are one of the best counter-attacking teams in the country.”
Co-captain Noah Billingsley is one of 11 seniors on the UCSB team who will have their one and only chance at a Big West Conference Tournament title.
None of them were around in 2015, the last time the Gauchos appeared in the conference tournament final.
“It’s a little bit of a relief, honestly,” said Billingsley, who was named the Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week. “I haven’t had the best three years before. We’ve had great teams, but we’ve fallen at the last hurdle a little bit.
“We weren’t able to meet expectations last year, but this year’s been great, and I’m thankful I’m able to play in my first Big West championship final.”