It’s been four years since the UCSB men’s soccer team won the Big West Conference regular-season championship.
With two matches remaining this season, the Gauchos are right there with a healthy chance at what coach Tim Vom Steeg calls “the first trophy.” As UCSB gets set to play at struggling Cal State Northridge tonight at 7 p.m., the Gauchos are tied with UC Davis and UC Irvine for the top spot in the conference.
It’s amazing that UCSB is even in this position considering the number of injuries to key players the team has endured this season. The Gauchos enter tonight’s match with an impressive 10-3-3 overall record and a 3-1-1 mark in conference. During Vom Steeg’s 21 seasons on the job, he’s actually had teams with a lot of talent that didn’t suffer as many injuries and missed out on a regular-season title.
This group, which is led in scoring by freshman Finn Ballard McBride’s nine goals and has a parking lot full of seniors with big-time experience, is special in what it’s accomplished, and the bench boss knows it.
“This group has overachieved,” Vom Steeg admitted Thursday. “We’ve been okay because we recruited a player like Finn, who figured out a way to get us nine goals, and we have 11 seniors. We needed somebody to come close to 10 goals, but we had no idea it was going to be a freshman.
“Finn’s been great, but the single biggest factor is we’re at Davis (on Wednesday) and we’re down what seemed like everybody, and I’m bringing four-year players off the bench into the game. That’s been the case for me all season. I’m not bringing in 18-year-olds, I’m bringing in 22-, 23-year-olds, and that’s a big factor.”
Tonight’s game will feature the return of injured defenders Faouzi Taieb and Mateo Restrepo Mejia.
Taieb, one of the best center backs in the college game, will be paired with Hunter Ashworth — the Gauchos other center back — for the first time since the Aug. 30 season-opener against UNLV. Taieb has been sidelined with hamstring and, most recently, a serious right-ankle sprain. Ashworth missed almost a month with the Gauchos because he was competing with his U23 New Zealand national team in Olympic qualifying.
Their reunion tonight is something even Vom Steeg has a tough time fathoming.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “That’s crazy. The idea that we’ve gone all season and not had them together is just crazy.”
Vom Steeg is also encouraged by the news that starting senior left back Ignacio Tellechea could be back in time for the conference tournament, which gets underway on Nov. 6. Tellechea, who is from Spain, was thought to have been lost for the season when he suffered a torn hamstring in a game last month.
“His was the worst of all the hamstring injuries we’ve had this season,” Vom Steeg said. “We thought he was done, but there’s a good chance we’ll get him back for maybe Cal Poly, but certainly by the conference tournament.”
So the Gauchos are getting healthy at the right time of the season. Even talented striker Rodney Michael is making progress with a right-knee injury suffered in UCSB’s last home game against UC Irvine on Oct. 19. Michael, like Tellechea, could be back next week.
All the Gauchos have to do is win their final two matches, and at least a share of the Big West regular-season crown will be theirs.
UCSB is 4-1-1 over its last six matches. CSUN is going the other way, having produced just a 1-4-1 record over its past six.
Still, the Matadors can rear up and bite the Gauchos if they’re not ready for tonight’s game. CSUN is fighting to get into the Big West Tournament, and an upset win over UCSB would boost the Matadors’ chances, considerably.
“If they lose, they might be knocked out,” Vom Steeg said of CSUN. “They’re teetering on missing the conference tournament, which is everyone’s lifeline to the NCAAs. So they are probably going to be very motivated to play us and beat us.”
There is a lot more than a trophy that goes with winning the conference regular-season title, or even finishing second. The top two teams receive first-round byes and get to host a semifinal game in the six-team Big West Conference Tournament — with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
That would be Vom Steeg’s “second trophy,” and all that would be left is the NCAA national title, which the Gauchos won in 2006.