Prior to 1999 when Tim Vom Steeg took over as coach, the UCSB men’s soccer team had made exactly zero appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Twenty years later, the Gauchos are set to make the program’s 13th NCAA Tournament appearance when they host the California Golden Bears tonight in a first-round match at Harder Stadium at 7 p.m.
It’s UCSB’s first trip back to the postseason since 2015, when the Gauchos made it to the Round of 16 at Clemson.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game, this is the NCAA playoffs,” Vom Steeg said. “Whether it’s Berkeley or anyone that shows up, you’re talking about one of the top teams in the country.”
Vom Steeg hopes the sequel goes better than the first meeting between the two teams this season.
Cal scored 45 seconds into the match and proceeded to wallop the Gauchos, 3-0, at Harder Stadium. What’s different about tonight’s match is that UCSB (12-4-4) will have its starting back-four defenders — something it didn’t have when the Bears (8-6-3) put a whooping on the Gauchos on Sept. 7.
Left center back Hunter Ashworth and outside back Noah Billingsley were gone with their New Zealand U23 national team in Olympic qualifying. Right center back Faouzi Taieb and left back Ignacio Tellechea were out with injuries. They are all back tonight, which should give UCSB a boost against a team that beat then-No. 1 Washington and Pac-12 rival Stanford in two of its last three matches just to get into this year’s 48-team field.
“Berkeley is coming off of two of the biggest wins you can have in a college season,” Vom Steeg said. “They’re feeling very confident as they come here. They’re coming off of feeling good about their two big wins, and they’re feeling good about getting in the tournament, which was a bit unexpected in a way, honestly.”
That’s because Cal’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is very low at 49.
The RPI is the formula the NCAA uses to decide at-large teams, which are teams that didn’t win their conference’s regular-season or postseason tournament. To put Cal in this year’s field, the NCAA passed up almost 20 teams with higher RPIs than the Bears.
“They got handed a gift,” Vom Steeg said. “This is the first time I’ve seen a team with that low of an RPI get into the tournament. They’re feeling good and we’re coming off of having a really, really disappointing performance. By far, it was the worst of the year and maybe an all-time low performance.”
That disappointing performance was last Friday at UC Davis, when the Gauchos fell flat in a 2-0 loss to the Aggies in the Big West Conference Tournament championship match. Vom Steeg hopes the game will be a motivating factor tonight against the Bears. So do the players.
“Obviously, that was one of our worst games we’ve played this season,” sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach said. “I think the best thing is just to move past it to the next game, and just have that in the back of your mind.
“We can’t be playing like that now, because one loss and your season’s done.”
Vom Steeg said he thought a game like the one in Davis for his team might have happened a lot earlier this season. He was still somewhat stunned on Wednesday that it happened in the Gauchos’ biggest game of the season to date.
“You head into this game and you’ve got to change the trajectory of the game if you’re us,” UCSB’s 21st-year coach said. “You have to look at the situation and say, ‘Our game is done, and the fact (Cal) beat Washington and Stanford is relevant in terms of what we have to do (tonight).’ Obviously, it’s an intriguing matchup.
“We played them in the third game of the season, but we didn’t have our back line. I also feel like that (win) gives them confidence, even though our back line wasn’t there. They did beat us, 3-0, and they controlled most of the game. I think they come in here with a lot of confidence, and I think it’s our job not to let them play with a lot of confidence.”
UCSB, which has outscored its opponents, 37-18, this season, has lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament just one time in its previous 12 appearances.
Oddly enough, that loss came to Cal, which needed double overtime to defeat the Gauchos, 3-2, in the second round in 2008.
UCSB is 18-10-2 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and 12-2-0 at Harder Stadium. The Gauchos have also played well at home this season, posting a 7-3-1 mark.
“It’s exciting times, and we’ve been working really hard throughout the season,” senior midfielder Sahid Conteh said. “I feel like it’s only rewarding that we’re in the tournament, and we just have to go out there (tonight) and get the win.”
Whichever team is victorious will play its second-round match at St. Mary’s in Moraga on Sunday afternoon.