Welcome to the O.K. Corral, heretofore known as Meredith Field at UCSB’s Harder Stadium.
For the second time in a week, there was a dramatic shootout at the home of Gaucho soccer. Just as the UCSB women’s team ousted Cal Poly in the Big West tournament semifinals last Thursday, the Gaucho men topped the Mustangs on penalty kicks Wednesday night after the two teams played a 2-2 tie before a crowd of 3,601.
A pair of freshmen emerged as the heroes in the shootout, which the Gauchos won by a score of 4-3. Goalkeeper Kristopher Minton stopped Cal Poly’s first two shots, and Michael Tetteh ended the fifth and final round by scoring the winning goal.
UCSB (11-5-4) will play for the tournament championship Saturday night at UC Irvine, which blanked UC Davis 1-0 in the other semifinal. The winner will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA men’s tournament, but the Gauchos, by virtue of their strong schedule, are confident that they will receive a berth in any event.
“I hope we get another home playoff game,” Gaucho Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. A victory Saturday night would aid that cause. UC Irvine (13-1-6) is ranked as high as No. 8 in the national polls, while UCSB comes in at No. 19. The Gauchos are the only team to beat the Anteaters, and they did it at Irvine, but they lost the regular-season rematch at home, and UCI earned the top seed in the conference tournament.
Wednesday night’s match had an electrifying playoff atmosphere, heightened by the rivalry of the two Central Coast schools. “The Gaucho Way,” a code of respectful conduct being promulgated at UCSB athletic events, took a backseat to Gaucho fans’ antipathy toward Cal Poly. But for a good portion of the match, after Julian Alvarez angled a shot past Minton in the 16th minute, the visiting fans enjoyed the upper hand, 1-0.
The excitement brought out the best in Nick Perera, UCSB’s senior forward. He scored both the Gauchos’ goals in a three-minute span of the second half. The first, off an assist from freshman Luis Silva, ended a 367-minute scoring drought by the Gauchos, who were coming off a pair of scoreless ties. Perera slammed another goal, his seventh of the year, after Minton launched a long kick downfield over the Cal Poly defense. That put UCSB ahead 2-1 in the 66th minute of the game, but the Mustangs tied it in the 78th minute on Patrick Sigler’s header off a corner kick.
The rest of the game, and two 10-minute overtimes, went scoreless just what Minton wanted.
“I love shootouts,” the Gaucho goalie said. “I live for these things. Ever since I was little, I’ve never lost a shootout.” Bolstering his confidence was his girlfriend freshman Ali Cutler, who was the goalkeeper in the two recent shootout victories that propelled UCSB into the NCAA women’s soccer tournament. (The Gaucho women play at top-seeded Stanford on Friday).
Cal Poly’s Mario Fernandez was the first shooter. As he stood at the penalty spot, the 6’4″ Minton strolled slowly into position, then jumped up and down, waving his arms high. “I want the shooter to think about it as much as he can,” Minton said. Fernandez shot the ball to Minton’s right, and the goalie made a diving save.
Eric Branagan-Franco, the Cal Poly goalkeeper, was outstanding in the run of play, preventing a rout by the Gauchos, who outshot the Mustangs 30-8 and put 13 shots on goal. Branagan-Franco saved 11 of them.
“Franco had a ridiculous game in the goal,” Vom Steeg said. But he gave his Gauchos the edge in the shootout with Minton, who is six inches taller than the 5’10” Cal Poly keeper. “The key to a shootout is a big goalkeeper,” Vom Steeg said.
Perera, kicking leadoff for the Gauchos, easily put his shot out of Branagan-Franco’s reach. Then Minton made another save off Cal Poly’s Kyle Montgomery, and Chris Pontius blasted a rocket into the net for the Gauchos, putting them up 2-0.
A goal by Cal Poly and a save by Branagan-Franco closed the gap to 2-1. Alfonso Motagalvan answered another Mustang goal with a shot that went under the crossbar for a 3-2 Gaucho lead. After David Zamora scored to keep Cal Poly’s hopes alive, Vom Steeg had no hesitation in sending Tetteh out for the decisive shot.
“Tetteh plays with no conscience,” the Gaucho coach said.
The freshman from Ghana let it rip, and although Branagan-Franco guessed right, he could not stop Tetteh’s ball from creasing the net, and the security detail could not keep hundreds of fans from swarming onto the field around the victorious Gauchos.