Tie me once, shame on you. Tie me twice, shame on me.
That essentially sums up the Cal Poly men’s soccer team’s feelings after a 1-1 draw with No. 3 UC Irvine in the Big West Conference-opener for both teams on Thursday night.
The Anteaters (8-0-2) were the second top-five team the Mustangs (5-2-3) have tied this season after a scoreless tie against No. 2 UCLA when the Bruins were top-ranked in the coaches’ poll last month.
Had Cal Poly come away with a victory against the highest-ranked team to ever appear in Alex G. Spanos Stadium, it would have been the program’s best regular-season win to date.
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The Mustangs have never beaten a top-10 team in Spanos Stadium, and last year’s 3-0 victory over UCLA when the Bruins were sixth-ranked in the nation represents the highest-regarded team Cal Poly has ever beaten.
“I think it stings,” junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa said. “This is the second top-ranked opponent where we’ve put ourselves in position to go win the game and maybe this one we let slip even. They’re a good team, definitely a team we could have beat, and we missed our fair share of chances.”
One of the most memorable missed Cal Poly chances was a penalty kick in the 53rd minute that was saved by UC Irvine goalkeeper Michael Breslin and could have put Cal Poly up 2-0. John Chronopoulos created the chance when he was tripped in the box but didn’t get much force behind his low line-drive on the penalty kick.
That’s the moment that will haunt the Mustangs.
It was the first missed penalty kick for the Mustangs since 2011, when Patrick Sigler was wide on a penalty kick in a 2-1 loss to UC Davis on Oct. 22 of that year. George Malki missed a penalty kick earlier in that same season.
“From a player perspective, I’m certain it’s in the back of his mind,” Cal Poly interim head coach Phil Ruskin said. “It might be in the front of his mind. At the end of the day, he put it past him. … Everybody misses. The best players in the world have missed penalty kicks. It’s what your response is afterward that defines whether that miss is going to take you out of the game.”
The Mustangs definitely had other chances as well. Cal Poly and UC Irvine had five shots on goal apiece in regulation. The Anteaters added four more in the overtime periods. The Mustangs added a couple.
Cal Poly has now played in three overtime games this season. All three have ended in draws.
Each team will receive a point in the Big West standings. A victory would have earned the winner three points.
“I think it’s a bit of a head-scratcher in the sense that we’re creating enough to win the game,” Ruskin said of the team’s overtime results. “We’re certainly not playing for the draw.
“You feel good about getting a point. Obviously, it’s challenging to get a point in the league and the team that can ultimately pick up points home or away has the best chance to get themselves a good seed. You don’t want to drop points, but I look at this game as dropping two points.”
The Mustangs took the first lead of the match when junior midfielder Chase Minter made a cross approaching the right post that skimmed through the legs of teammate of Ramiro Molina-Valerio to LaGrassa, who lifted a shot up and off the cross bar.
The ball caromed down to Breslin, who was unable to grab it, and bounced off the grass, under the keeper’s outstretched leg and into the goal.
“I saw LaLa creeping to the top of the box, and I know how good a finisher LaLa is,” Minter said. “It was just my job to try and put it in his area, and he did a hell of a job with it.”
It was LaGrassa’s fifth goal of the season, a team high, and Minter’s third assist. Molina-Valerio was not credited with an official assist, but the air stream of his whiff seemed to redirect the ball anyhow.
“I yelled out to Ramiro, and I told him to let it go,” LaGrassa said. “I think he took a swing at it, maybe just missed, and it kind of popped out to me, and it was more of just a reaction at that point.”
UC Irvine equalized in the 76th minute when Michael Sperber found Mario Ortiz all by himself near the left post. Ortiz quickly deadened the pass and zipped a shot past diving Cal Poly keeper Wade Hamilton.
Hamilton finished with eight saves, one off his season high. Breslin had six saves in goal for the Anteaters.
Announced attendance was just 1,103. The diehard soccer fans were packed into their usual section and created a rowdy environment complete with chants and jeers.
But the casual Cal Poly fans appeared to miss the importance of the match. It’s not everyday the No. 3 team in the nation visits your stadium. This had all the makings of the game worthy of a sellout crowd storming the field, but the Mustangs will have to stomach a missed opportunity to pull off a big upset.
“UCLA was the same as well,” Minter said, referencing the earlier draw with the Bruins. “I think both of them we look back on now, and we don’t see any reason we shouldn’t be pulling out wins here.”