The annual Blue-Green rivalry home game at Alex G. Spanos Stadium and final game of the Big West Conference season held a little more weight this year. With the Cal Poly men’s soccer team sitting in fourth place in the standings, a win or draw against UCSB (11-3-4, 4-1-2) would secure a pivotal home date for the opening round of the Big West Tournament on Nov. 6.
The Mustangs fell 2-0 in front of the largest crowd for a collegiate game in the nation this year.
But it didn’t spell the end of the season, as Cal Poly could have also earned a home game if Big West co-leader UC Davis defeated or tied fifth-place Sacramento State. The Aggies beat the Hornets 1-0, just before the Blue-Green game kicked off.
Just how important is a home game to Cal Poly?
The Mustangs (7-8-1, 3-4-0) entered Saturday’s game with a 6-2 record at home. They started the conference schedule with two consecutive losses, dropping them in the Big West standings. Since then, they have won three of the last five games.
Turnaround in Big West play
When Cal Poly has scored in a match, it has only lost twice. When it has allowed more than 1 goal, it has lost four times.
The Mustangs used that formula to rattle off wins against Cal State Fullerton, CSUN and Sacramento State before falling to Big West co-leaders UC Irvine 2-0. During the winning streak, Cal Poly outscored opponents 6-1.
Against UCSB, they faced a challenge, as four different Gaucho players had at least four goals entering Saturday. Cal Poly limited the Gauchos to only three total shots on goal to Cal Poly’s 18. The difference was that the Gauchos converted their scant opportunities.
“My message to the boys was just: ‘You’ve just got to finish your chances. Finish your chances, and it makes all the difference in the world,’” Cal Poly head coach Steve Sampson said.
One of those four players got the Gauchos on the scoreboard early, when Rodney Michael found Will Baynham in front of the box with one man to beat in the 21st minute. Baynham also had a deflected shot off of defender Josh Graham that also found the back of the net for an own goal in the 67th minute.
Perez top conference, national talent
Over Cal Poly’s previous 12 matches, junior midfielder Emmanuel Perez had scored a conference-leading nine goals — four of which were game-winners. The total ranks 24th among NCAA Division I players.
Perez had three goals and two assists last season. He was second on the team in points with eight, but with the departure of senior forward Sean Goode, Perez has stepped into a larger role and grown into one of the best players in the Big West.
For as much as the Mustangs kept them in check, the Gauchos limited the chances for Perez, as he registered only one shot on goal.
Helping to set the table for Perez has been senior midfielder Diego Alonso, who has four assists on the year.
Perez has the special ability to hold the ball high up the field and the talent to separate from defenders, but what Sampson thinks is best about Perez is his timing.
“His timing is so beautiful,” Sampson said. “He doesn’t have the greatest speed in the world, but his timing when balls are laid in to just get inside his defender — and he needs very little space to get a shot off and he’s got a quick release.
“There’s no one — I mean we have pods that players put on their backs — and there’s no one that works as hard or covers more ground than Manny Perez. I’m really proud of him.”
Cal Poly will play host to a TBA opponent on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament.