Flash back to four years ago.
The fiery Cal Poly-UC Santa Barbara men’s soccer rivalry as it’s known today was a just a pot of water bubbling on the stove.
It was only the prior year that the Mustangs were able to get more than 7,000 people in Alex G. Spanos Stadium for the first time on the annual visit from the Gauchos, who won the NCAA title in 2006.
But in 2008, a group made up mostly of Cal Poly students completely filled the 11,075-seat on-campus stadium for an instant-classic match that featured all the drama of mass chants, an overtime golden goal and flying bottles from the stands.
The pot had officially begun to boil over.
At the time, it was the thirdlargest crowd to ever see a regular-season NCAA men’s soccer match, and Mustangs recruit Mackenzie Pridham was there on an official visit.
“When you’re in that atmosphere, the environment, the fans,” Pridham said, recalling the most compelling aspect and “just how crazy and European-like it was.”
“It was one of those things that helped me want to make the decision to come to this school,” he added.
“It was definitely a special thing that our program has to offer that others don’t.”
And Saturday’s meeting between the two Central Coast rivals might have the most riding on it for the Mustangs of any of the epic showdowns with UC Santa Barbara that have taken place under seventh-year coach Paul Holocher.
The Blue-Green men’s soccer matchup has exploded enough to be deemed the greatest college soccer rivalry in the country by CollegeSoccerNews.com.
Pridham committed to Cal Poly after his visit and has become the most prolific single-season scorer for the Mustangs in 17 years.
Only the Gauchos stand in the way of Holocher advancing to the Big West Conference Tournament in the first season running a ball-control style based on the 1-4-3-3 scheme of FC Barcelona.
A victory for Cal Poly (10-6-1, 5-3-1 Big West) would secure a spot in the four-team conference tournament, which awards an automatic NCAA berth to its champion.
A tie means the Mustangs would need UC Davis to beat rival Sacramento State in another regular-season finale to advance. A loss would end their season altogether.
The Gauchos (10-5-3, 4-4-1 Big West) are playing only for pride. If their record wasn’t enough to end their 10-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, the university self-imposed a postseason ban after defender Peter McGlynn was dismissed from the team following his arrest for pushing an official after a 2-1 loss at UC Davis last week.
“The unexpected, the drama of the game” is what Holocher said makes this rivalry one of the best. “These are games that are won or lost on one magical moment,” he said, “so, you’re always on the edge of your seat.
“We don’t know what the magical moment will be on Saturday, but everyone knows there will be these great moments.”
Those moments came late in the previous meeting this season, Cal Poly’s first win at Harder Stadium since 1997.
Pridham and the Gauchos goalkeeper collided to create an open shot in front of the net for George Malki, who scored the 1-1 equalizer for the Mustangs with a minute left in regulation after UC Santa Barbara had led since the 75th minute.
Pridham put the game-winner in the net six minutes into overtime.
A Canadian citizen who grew up in the Bay Area, Pridham has scored 11 goals this season. He’s not only the first player with double-digit goals under Holocher, but his scoring total is the most since program record-holder Clay Harty netted 16 in 1995. Pridham’s 23 points this year also rank as the fourth-highest single season total in Mustang history.
“He has a great mentality,” Holocher said. “He’s very brave. He’s willing get his head on a ball, to race into dangerous situations, to get a foot on it. He’s strong as an ox, can shoot with both feet very quickly. He’s a true striker of the ball, and he’s been great this year.”
The junior was born in Toronto but moved to the United States with his family when he was in grade school. He attended San Jose’s Bellarmine Prep all four years of high school but only played soccer for the De Anza Force, one of 77 elite clubs selected for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program for high-level players.
It was also with the Force that Pridham learned to play the center forward position in the 1-4-3-3.
As a high-volume scoring striker at the club level, he also caught the eye and a scholarship offer from Portland but chose Cal Poly in the end.
The decision hadn’t paid off in goals until this season, when Holocher moved Pridham to his more natural position, one where most of the team’s opportunities in the goal box are funneled his way.
Pridham figures to be a key player once again against UC Santa Barbara, which Cal Poly is looking to sweep for the first time since 1997.
It’s been a competitive series. The Gauchos haven’t swept the Mustangs since 2006, and 10 of the past 11 meetings have either been ties or decided by one goal. Maybe Pridham’s goal?
“When I get the ball anywhere close to the goal, my number one option is to find any way to score,” Pridham said.
“It’s all about finding and putting yourself in the right positions to score goals. If you don’t get into the box, you’re not going to score goals. Just being in the right place at the right time.”