Still in the race

Alonso Tacanga

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So nice to be on the winning side of a heartbreak.

It was the same story all over. The home team struck first with a goal. Next, in a very short span – not 10 seconds-short, though – the visitor scored two. Then, to make a perfect recreation of Wednesday – when the Matadors fell 3-1 at home to Big West Conference-leading UC Santa Barbara – the visiting team hit one last back-breaking goal just as the game wound down to its final moments.

This wasn’t the Gauchos and their two goals in 10 seconds, though. This was UCR Soccer Stadium, home of the UC Riverside Highlanders. This was Saturday afternoon. Northridge was the one visiting, falling behind 1-0 in the second half and then ripping the heart out of the Big West’s cellar-dweller with two goals in two minutes. This was CSUN burying all of the home team’s hopes with the win-cementing third goal in the 79th minute.

Most of all, this was the Matadors winning, 3-1. This was them getting some much-needed points to stay alive in the postseason hunt heading into their last two games of the regular season.

‘We’ve been down before,’ said midfielder Ben Cox. ‘ We’re good at responding to adversity. We knew we’d turn it around.’

They turned it around by controlling the field. That was the only difference between Saturday’s game and the match against UCSB. In that one, both visiting and home teams were evenly matched. This time it was the Matadors, the visitors, directing the pace of the game, managing the actions. They took it to the Highlanders like the superior team in need of points they were – and still are.

Even Head Coach Terry Davila, a man who doesn’t believe in the doctrine of merits and moral victories, saw fairness being served in this one.

‘We had a really bad 10 seconds against UC Santa Barbara and it cost us,’ he said. ‘But (Saturday) we controlled the game. We stepped it up. (The win) was well-deserved.’

Matadors and Highlanders traded shots in the first half, but none was able to break through for the opening score. That would change as the second 45 minutes of the game began. Seven minutes into the half, UC Riverside got the scoring fest started thanks to Joel Crompton converting on a penalty kick following a foul against Nate Patterson in the CSUN box. The goal came as a gift to Riverside, a talented, but young squad who has endured a long, painful season filled with losses, 13 of them.

The Matadors, also having gone through their share of growing pains in 2008, found a quick answer to their shock. In the 58th minute, Christopher Leiva placed a cross to midfielder Sunghyun Kim and the junior was able to beat goalkeeper Ryan Schmitz for the momentary 1-1. CSUN was finally awakening.

Two minutes later, Northridge was fully up as Nicholas Hamilton headed in goal No. 2.
‘We finished our chances this time,’ Cox said.

Two chances in two minutes and there was still a third one to be finished. It took a bit more than 120 seconds for a somewhat-forgotten Matador to decide to call it, though. Following a cross by Dylan Riley from the right side, forward Cameron Sims – absent from score boxes since Sept. 7 – headed in the sentencing 3-1.

The goal was the conference-leading 40th against the Highlanders this season. All of them have been scored on Schmitz, who – to his credit – had nine saves in this one. After that, Riverside had no more to throw at Northridge.

CSUN and his 12 conference points are in a five-team battle for four playoff spots. Only four points separated first from fifth place going into Sunday. The Matadors have only two games left in their conference schedule: Wednesday, on the road, against ‘lowly’ Cal State Fullerton and, Saturday, at home, against UC Irvine – one of the top 5.

‘The Fullerton game is going to be the hardest match of the year,’ said Davila, not looking ahead to the possible showdown against the Anteaters Saturday. UCI is currently fourth in the standings.

The standings. The place where everything gets decided. For now, though, the Matadors have only one place to worry about: Fullerton. It’s win-or-go-home week.