The Cal Poly men’s soccer team doesn’t have any trouble filling Alex G. Spanos Stadium when rival UC Santa Barbara comes to San Luis Obispo.
Those Blue-Green battles are regularly the biggest campus athletic event of the school year.
But today’s match against another Big West Conference foe just might be the most substantial of the season in the Mustangs’ friendly confines.
Cal Poly (5-2-2) hosts No. 3 UC Irvine (8-0-1) tonight at 7, looking to give the Anteaters, who are also second in the NCAA’s RPI rankings, their first loss of the season and make a major statement in the conference-opener.
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“Fan attendance is something that drives the UCSB rivalry, the location of both of the schools, the competitiveness of the programs over the years,” Mustangs interim head coach Phil Ruskin said, “but when you look at UC Irvine, they’re a team that was in the NCAA Tournament last year and the Sweet 16. They were receiving the first-round bye when they won the South to be the number one team going into the conference tournament.
“It’s not as if they’re having just a great season. They’ve been a good program over the last couple years.”
The Anteaters are proving especially adept this season at putting away close matches. Seven of their eight victories have come by a single goal.
After a 1-1 tie at Georgetown on Sept. 14, the first after starting the season on a four-match winning streak, UC Irvine has now won another four straight, three via sudden death in overtime.
Perhaps that has to do with a senior-dominated attack.
Forward Cameron Iwasa is the Anteaters’ facilitator. The senior has two goals and a team-leading four assists this season, and he’s complemented by midfielder Gor Kirakosyan and forward Dennis Martinez, two fifth-year seniors. Kirakosyan is tied for the team lead with five goals, and Martinez has four.
Junior midfielder Eduardo Calzada, a transfer from CSU Bakersfield, also has five goals. The fact that the Anteaters aren’t blowing anyone away should inspire confidence in any of their opponents, but Cal Poly comes in with high expectations regardless.
The Mustangs battled No. 2 UCLA to a scoreless draw in Los Angeles when the Bruins were atop the coaches’ poll. That enforced a belief that Cal Poly, which whipped North Carolina State 3-1 on the road, could compete with anyone.
Leading a showdown with San Francisco by two goals last week before settling for a 2-1 victory is also a point of pride.
At a news conference Tuesday, Ruskin was asked if UC Irvine was vulnerable.
“Absolutely, no doubt,” he said. “What we’ve learned from them on film is that they have a couple areas that we intend to exploit, and the reality is our guys have a good scout on them. They have a good idea of what we’re trying to do. (To) night, it’s going to all come down to how well they execute.
“It’s going to be won or lost in the transition game. Can we defend well? I believe we can. Can we score goals? I know we can. So, who wants it more? Who wants to get behind the ball and work for the 90 minutes or the 110 minutes? That’s where the points are going to go.”
Cal Poly also has to contend with a mini scoring slump. The Mustangs opened the season scoring three or more goals in each of their first three matches. In the past four, the first being the draw with the Bruins, Cal Poly has managed three scores total.
A 2-1 loss to Pacific on Sept. 21 broke a six-match unbeaten streak, but a scoreless draw with Drake this past Friday was frustrating as well.
In that match, the Mustangs dominated possession and accounted for 18 shots, including six on goal. Among the close calls, senior midfielder Chase Minter had a shot bounce off the cross bar. Sophomore Justin Dhillon had a header bounce wide in front of an open net.
“They need to feel confident in their ability,” Ruskin said, because hitting the post, especially late on can be deflating because you’ve already beaten the goalkeeper. At that point, you’ve done the work to get in the right position. The reality is you just didn’t finish it.
“It’s so important for our guys to understand we’re still creating great chances. We just need to finish and that’s all it comes down to.”