In its quest for an NCAA Tournament berth, the Cal Poly men’s soccer team doesn’t have the poll votes of UC Irvine, the Mustangs’ opponent in today’s semifinal of the Big West Conference tournament.
But Cal Poly (8-9-2) has something the Anteaters (13-6-0) do not: Home field for tonight’s 7 p.m. match.
The Mustangs are hosting a conference tournament match for the first time since the automatic NCAA berth playoff process was reinstated by the Big West last season. Considering Cal Poly has a seven-match home unbeaten streak and has not trailed in Alex G. Spanos Stadium for 650 minutes, that’s a weighty advantage.
“It’s very exciting to play at home,” Mustangs head coach Paul Holocher said. “I really feel like we have some of the best college soccer fans in the country. For me, having traveled around the nation, I think it’s the best college soccer venue in the country.
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“It makes a major positive influence on our game to play for our fans. Definitely the 12th man for us.”
UC Irvine — along with No. 4 UC Santa Barbara (14-3-2), which hosts Cal State Northridge (10-7-2) tonight in the other semifinal — has been ranked in the top 25 nationally.
The Anteaters recently fell among the ranks of those “also receiving votes” after a 3-0 loss to the Matadors in the season finale last week, but of the Big West’s top three teams, UC Irvine and the Gauchos have a much better chance of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament than the Mustangs do with their overall losing record.
That makes the Big West Tournament title a must-win in order for Cal Poly to make its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs upset UCLA 1-0 in their first appearance in the postseason level last year.
Cal Poly could even host the tournament final, like the Mustangs women did in a losing effort this past Sunday, if Cal State Northridge is able to upset top-seeded UC Santa Barbara.
If both the Mustangs and Gauchos win, the heated rivalry would be renewed at UC Santa Barbara’s Harder Stadium, a place Cal Poly hasn’t won at in Holocher’s tenure.
But first, the Mustangs have to take care of a potent UC Irvine offense that overcame a first-half 1-0 deficit against Cal Poly in the regular season with two second-half scores.
“We dropped into more of a defensive mindset in the second half when we had the lead instead of continuing to attack and pushing forward, we may have been playing to protect the lead rather than continuing to try and score,” Holocher said.
“You hope when you get the first goal that you can hold on to it, and most of the time the team does that but it’s always good medicine to get that second goal.”