Matadors earn Big West Men’s Soccer Championship bid

The Matadors’ starting lineup stands on the field in the match against UC Irvine on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, at the Performance Soccer Field in Northridge, Calif.

Justin Parrott, Reporter

CSUN men’s soccer heads into the Big West Championship, clinching to the No. 4 seed with a 1-0 win Saturday against the CSU Fullerton Titans.

CSUN was tied for second with UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine, each with 16 points after the final game of the season. But losses to both UCSB and UCI dropped them to fourth in the standings due to a tiebreaker, taking away their opportunity to jump Riverside, who finished first with 17 points.

Finishing with a 3-5-1 record in the Big West Conference a year ago, CSUN is rejuvenated with a 5-3-1 finish in Big West play this season. This year the team was more aggressive, taking more shots per game with 11.47 compared to 9.83 last season. The Matadors have not made the playoffs since 2019 and played with a hungry mindset in the game against the Titans.

“Our goal all year was to make the tournament,” said CSUN head coach Terry Davila. “Having a tough season last year with COVID, we wanted to get in the tournament this year to build on for next year.”

David Diaz, 58, celebrates after scoring the Matadors’ lone goal to make the score 2-1 in the first half against UC Irvine on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, at the Performance Soccer Field in Northridge, Calif. (Efrain Ballon)

UC Riverside is sitting at the top of the standings, awaiting the winner between the Matadors and UC Davis. On Oct. 8, CSUN hosted the Aggies in a tough game in which the Matadors could not convert with the man advantage in the second half, losing 1-0.

CSU Sacramento plays at UC Irvine, a matchup between the No. 6 and No. 3 seeds in which the winner will take on UCSB. The Matadors have losses to both the teams on byes, which are potential threats if they face again in the tournament. Davila acknowledges that the league is very deep with a lot of talent.

“The parity is unbelievable in the Big West,” Davila said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day and you have to bring your A-game.”

Sophomore Jamar Ricketts, junior Jack Rhead and freshman David Diaz have been major contributors this season. Ricketts is the team’s leading scorer with four goals, while Rhead and Diaz each have two. Diaz leads the team with his playmaking, earning three assists this season. Ricketts and Rhead have also contributed two assists.

Sophomore Levin Gerhardt has also been an X-factor, giving the Matadors two goals to go along with one assist. Gerhardt scored the go-ahead goal at Sacramento State, allowing CSUN to squeak by 2-1 in the 84rd minute. At UC San Diego, Gerhardt assisted on a goal by Ricketts in the 85th minute to earn a 1-0 victory. The play of Gerhardt and the others has elevated the team, giving them a chance to compete in the Big West tournament.

Juniors Bryan Bustamante and AJ Johnson both started in 15 of 17 games, giving the Matadors a veteran presence on the field. They were both nominated for Big West Defensive Player of the Week this semester, strengthening the team’s back line. Johnson has also contributed by giving the team chances to score, assisting on a go-ahead Gerhardt goal against Sacramento State. Davila affirms that their play is crucial in the playoffs.

“Bryan Bustamante and AJ Johnson have been steady as heck for us this year,” Davila said. “If those two guys play well, the whole team plays well.”

CSUN and UC Irvine stand in formation during the national anthem ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, at the Performance Soccer Field in Northridge, Calif. (Efrain Ballon)

The Matadors have performed better on the road than they have at home this season. Their record at home is 2-3-4, while on the road they are 6-2 this season. They have been in tight games at home, losing two games by one goal and tying once in conference. The Matadors had shots to win. A missed penalty kick by Ricketts in the draw against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo shaped the standings in the Big West. Davila believes outside factors have contributed to their lack of success at home.

“When you’re on the road, you are with the team the whole time and completely focused,” Davila said. “At home you’re coming from school and classes, so there’s a different preparation when it comes to academics.”

Even though the Matadors have struggled at home this season, having the advantage of playing on their own field gives players confidence. Playing on the road is tough, especially in environments with opposing fan bases. Despite CSUN’s home record, Ricketts loves the opportunity to play in front of their fans.

“Being able to play at home helps us because we have a great fan base and we love to play in front of them,” Ricketts said.

The Matadors have not won the Big West Conference since 2016, the same year as their last appearance in the NCAA tournament. As someone who has never been there, Ricketts is excited about the team returning to the tournament and believes the Matadors have the talent to make a deep run.

“It was tough last season for us, but when we got notified that we were in the tournament everyone took a deep breath,” Ricketts said. “I’m proud that the team made it this far and we have a chance to do something great here.”

CSUN will host UC Davis on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. for a chance to take on UC Riverside in the semifinals.