So much for the ultimate duel. It’s hard to make any conclusions about skill when one gunslinger shows up at high noon without his pistol fully loaded.
That was the case for the Cal Poly men’s soccer team in a first-place showdown with Big West Conference rival UC Davis on Wednesday night at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
What’s not in doubt: The Aggies (6-1-8, 4-1-1 Big West) came away with a 1-0 victory that moved them three points up in the North Division standings and dropped Cal Poly (8-4-3, 3-2-1 Big West) into a second-place tie with UC Santa Barbara heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Gauchos in Santa Barbara.
But did UC Davis’ extremely direct style prove superior to the Mustangs’ possession gameplan?
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Cal Poly interim head coach Phil Ruskin wasn’t ready to yield an inch, maintaining a stance he took in a Tuesday news conference that the Mustangs play a more attractive form of soccer than the Aggies.
“I don’t come away feeling disappointed in the style that we played,” Ruskin said. “To be fair, our scouting report was 100 percent accurate; our preparation was absolutely right. We played very well. We made one mistake, and unfortunately, in the game of soccer that can be the difference.”
The big strike came on a cross to the front of the goal by the Aggies’ Noah Wilson that UC Davis forward Matt Sheldon was able to fire past dicing Cal Poly keeper Wade Hamilton in the 64th minute.
Spectators wondered whether Sheldon might have been offside, but Ruskin said his viewing angle of the play was off, and it didn’t appear that the Mustangs’ players protested very hard on the field.
As for those missing bullets, Cal Poly was without four potential starters on the back line. Ruben Duran, a returning starter at center back has been missing all year with a season-ending injury. Fellow defender Kody Wakasa has also been lost for the year.
Brett Foreman, Duran’s replacement at center back, has missed the past three matches with a leg injury, and yet another defender, Nick Carroll, has missed the past four with an illness. Additionally, midfielder Sean Dhillon missed Wednesday’s match to serve an automatic suspension for picking up his fifth yellow card of the season last week.
To compensate, junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa, Cal Poly’s second-leading scorer, has played center back since Foreman went down. On Wednesday, Chase Minter, the Mustangs’ team leader and the second-leading goal-scorer in the conference, played back more than usual as well.
Ruskin said the sacrifices made to the attack were necessary.
“It’s not necessarily giving up too much as it is we just don’t have the personnel right now to play guys” in their natural positions, Ruskin said. “We want to worry about our defending, and then sometimes that means you’ve got to take people out of your natural spots to compensate for what we don’t have.
“One of the things that makes me extremely excited about guys playing out of position is that we always have Wade.”
The missing players have meant more work for Hamilton, who upped his Big West-leading saves total to 74 with four more stops against the Aggies. Hamilton came into the match ranked fifth in the nation.
The junior has had to be more vocal with a rotating crop of new players.
“I always communicate a good bit,” Hamilton said, “but with different players in different positions and new players coming in, a lot more communication is definitely needed, and they listen well, and they get the job done just like any player would, so I do feel comfortable.” Still, the dearth of offense was noticeable.
UC Davis finished with 18 shots, five on goal, and maintained possession in Cal Poly’s half pretty much from the break until scoring the goal.
Cal Poly had 12 shots, including a season-low two on goal. Coming into the game, the Mustangs were averaging 5.7 shots on goal per match and hadn’t had fewer than four in a single game. Cal Poly had four shots on goal in a scoreless draw with UCLA when the Bruins were ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll, and the Mustangs tallied seven shots on goal in a 1-1 draw with No. 3 UC Irvine.
Even so, there was no panic on behalf of Cal Poly after the match. The Mustangs still have a return trip to make to Davis and two matches against UC Santa Barbara. Winning out in the final four matches would still guarantee Cal Poly a top-two seed in the Big West Tournament. Dhillon will be back Saturday, and the Mustangs are also hoping Carroll can make his return against the Gauchos.
“Not too concerned,” said Minter, who had one of the two shots on goal and nearly delivered on a couple of would-be assists. “Obviously, it’s disappointing, things we can’t control with guys being out.
“We’ve got some of our good guys in the midfield and who help us going forward were having to play a little bit more of defensive role today, and obviously we didn’t have that same output because we didn’t have guys in our normal spot.”