The second annual Big West Conference Tournament gets underway Wednesday, featuring the top four men’s soccer teams.
As the fourth-place team, Cal State Northridge (10-7-2, 5-4-1 BW) will face perennial powerhouse and regular season champ UC Santa Barbara, which ranked No. 3 in the nation last week. With an 8-1-1 conference record (14-3-2 overall), the Gauchos won their sixth Big West title. Their only loss in conference came at the hands of the Matadors at Matador Field, 1-0. Since then, the Gauchos are unbeaten in five matches.
UCSB exacted its revenge at Harder Stadium with a 2-0 win. Yet, the match might have come out different if CSUN had a bit more luck with its shots. On numerous occasions, the Matadors’ shots either hit the crossbar or post, or bounced just wide of the net. The Gauchos are a squad that knows how to defend home field, with a record of 8-1 and seven shutouts. Their only loss at home came against Loyola Marymount, a team that CSUN defeated at home.
UCSB is assured a spot in the NCAA tournament, but the Matadors might be on the fence for an invitation. Last season, all four teams that qualified for the inaugural Big West Tournament earned an invite.
With noteworthy victories over UCSB, UC Irvine, Tulsa, Southern Methodist and LMU, CSUN has a solid resume to go along with a strong schedule. A second win over the Gauchos would surely guarantee an invite. It would also move the Matadors one step away from possibly being crowned tournament champs.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (8-9-2, 6-3-1) comes in as the second seed and will host third-seeded Irvine (13-6, 6-4). The Anteaters’ season finale loss at home to CSUN must still sting a bit, since a win would have made them the second seed and host of at least their first match. Instead, Irvine, last year’s regular season and conference champ, must head north to Cal Poly for a night game. All four teams have history in the big tournament, and it would not be a surprise should the NCAA take all four schools regardless of the first-round results.
The Matadors-Gauchos match-up will surely again be fast-paced and physical. CSUN is a tough defensive team that constantly attacks forward on offense and presses the action. In their first match, the Gauchos could not get their offense into a rhythm and looked out of sync at times. In the second match, both sides had ample scoring opportunities, but it was UCSB that managed to find the back of the net – twice.
The task is daunting and the Matadors know it. Coach Terry Davila, in his 11th season at CSUN, has repeatedly called Santa Barbara the best program in the West, and respects that it has set such a high standard nationally and in conference. The Gauchos have made two appearances in the College Cup Title, winning it all in 2006 and losing in 2004 on penalty kicks.
The Gauchos play a tough brand of defense of their own. Led by junior goalie Sam Hayden, they have allowed just a single goal in conference.
CSUN has allowed the third fewest goals in conference and recorded seven shutouts all season. The Matadors have also scored the second-most goals in conference with 14. UCSB is tied for third-most with 13.