It’s well known that Cal Poly men’s soccer supporters will pack the Alex G. Spanos Stadium stands when UC Santa Barbara comes to town.
Spanos filled to capacity once again Sunday for the latest edition of the Blue-Green rivalry, meaning the announced 11,075 tied four other sellouts in the series for 12th all-time on the NCAA regular-season attendance record list.
The crowd is such a factor that this time, the Gauchos made it a point to quiet the home fans quickly and did just that in a 2-0 victory that earned them at least a share of the Big West Conference North division title and put the Mustangs’ backs completely against the wall.
UC Santa Barbara’s Nick DePuy scored two goal — both on assists from Ahl Ludwig — in the first 22 minutes, shocking Cal Poly and its fans and allowing the Gauchos (9-6-3, 5-2-2 Big West) to relax and frustrate the Mustangs with a defensive gameplan the rest of the way.
“It was a huge part of our plan,” DePuy said, “and we knew that if were to win this game, we would win conference. It was good to get an early one, and it was great to get another one. After those two, we just had to buckle down, sit in tight and defend.”
Now, the Mustangs (8-5-4, 3-4-2 Big West) need to win in the regular-season finale at UC Davis to keep alive their hopes of making it to the Big West Tournament. Anything less, and Cal Poly’s season is over. Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara needs only a tie against Sacramento State to clinch the division title outright.
It might feel unnatural, but the Mustangs are actually rooting for the Gauchos to beat the Hornets, which will guarantee Cal Poly a spot in the conference postseason tournament as long as the Mustangs beat UC Davis.
Cal Poly was poised to enter a three-way tie with the Aggies and Gauchos with a victory over UC Santa Barbara, but that proposition didn’t take long to go off the rails.
DePuy’s first goal came just 6:17 into the game when he took a flick from Ludwig and fired a shot near the left post past Mustangs keeper Wade Hamilton from about 15 yards out.
DePuy immediately ran to the loudest section of the stadium, held a finger to his lips and pranced in front of the crowd.
The Gauchos didn’t let up. Instead, they continued to smother Cal Poly with a press defense, which turned out to be a solid strategy. The Mustangs prefer to work the ball through the midfield, and when they were fresh, UC Santa Barbara defenders seemed to be everywhere.
Cal Poly didn’t get off a single shot until midfielder Matt LaGrassa had one blocked in the 31st minute and ended the half with only two shots, one on goal.
“They were doing a pretty good job defensively,” Mustangs forward Justin Dhillon said, “closing things down quickly, so we only had a split-second to make up our mind.”
In the 22nd minute, Ludwig sent a cross across the 10-yard line that DePuy headed into the net for his eighth goal of the season.
“He’s very dangerous in the air,” LaGrassa said. “Great header, but on the first goal, we didn’t end the ball when we had the opportunity. Maybe we don’t keep possession, but we smash it out of bounds, do something of that nature, foul the guy, slow down the play in some way. We didn’t do it, and eventually, he received the ball, and good finish. Credit to him.”
Cal Poly found itself down two when only little more than a week ago, the Mustangs themselves had a 2-0 lead against the Gauchos at UC Santa Barbara’s Harder Stadium in the 52nd minute.
In that match, the Gauchos quickly got one back and equalized before the end of regulation to earn a 2-2 draw through overtime.
“That was my last point coming back into the second half,” Cal Poly interim head coach Phil Ruskin said. “We’ve been in this position last week, except all in the reverse. So, we knew we were going to create chances.”
As UC Santa Barbara dug in defensively, the Mustangs outshot the Gauchos 11-5 in the second half. Two came on goal.
Cal Poly freshman forward Kaba Alkebulan fired a shot low and right at UC Santa Barbara goalkeeper Brandon Berke in the 53rd minute. Alkebulan had another shot go wide in the 59th and a header on a corner kick from Chase Minter sail over the cross bar in the 69th. Minter had a second-half header go wide. So did Sean Dhillon.
Around the 77th minute, Berke leapt to grab a shot but bobbled it in a collision, and LaGrassa quickly kicked it in, but the score was nullified on the foul that jarred the ball loose.
LaGrassa had a penalty kick in the 86th minute that was expertly knocked away by a diving Berke and continued a depressing run of failed penalties for the Mustangs.
Cal Poly is now 3-6 on penalty kicks, including misses on their past three.
Perhaps the Mustangs are psyching themselves out. If so, they have to find a way to deal with pressure, which will certainly be mounting Wednesday.
“What better motivation than that, right?” Dhillon said. “Put everything out on the line, and if we win, we’ll go through, and if not, we’re out. I think we’ll step up and give us something more to play for.”