Despite its celebrated nickname of “Soccer Heaven,” UC-Santa Barbara’s Harder Stadium is anything but heavenly for visiting teams. Home to soccer nation’s most loyal and dedicated group of college fans, Harder is notably one of the most intimidating venues for opposing players and coaches alike.
This Friday, the Stanford men’s soccer team will try their luck in the infamous stadium when they face off against the UC-Santa Barbara Guachos. Although the game seems to be an insignificant out-of-conference matchup, much more is at stake. If unranked Stanford can pull off a win against the Guachos, who are currently No. 25 in the NCAA rankings, they would be in a good position to make a run at the NCAA tournament.
Cardinal coach Jeremy Gunn recognizes the challenges that his team will face on Friday, noting that the UCSB soccer program is one of the best in the country. The Guachos are currently fifth in the Big West Conference, but the team went undefeated through the first seven weeks of their season, relying heavily on a resilient defense. UCSB’s rookie goalie, Austin Manser, has a .767 saves average and five shutouts to his name, ranking third in the nation.
Despite their stingy defense and historical dominance on the West Coast–UCSB has won five Big West titles in the last five years–Stanford freshman midfielder Ty Thompson said the Gauchos pedigree is mostly mental.
“I’m not really intimidated by them,” Thompson said, “especially if we play our game. The way we put pressure on the ball, it makes it very difficult for the other team, no matter who they are.”
After a difficult 2-1 loss to the University of Washington this past weekend, the Stanford team is frustrated after failing to protect an early lead. According to Thompson, “the guys are definitely hungry,” so the key to the UCSB game is to take advantage of the dynamism and positive energy from Sunday. They hope to use their restlessness to follow through on set pieces, a marked weakness of the team so far this season.
Especially maddening is the fact that Stanford has outshot their opponents 245 shots to 139 shots this season, a figure that further emphasizes the team’s baffling inability to convert their fluid movement into marks on the scoreboard.
On Friday, the team will look to sophomore Zach Batteer, former Pac-12 Player of the Week, and senior Adam Jahn, the team’s leading scorer with eight goals this season, to finish on corners or free kicks.
Despite the strong defensive shape of the men’s team, the midfield will be highly contested. The Guachos’ offense is led by midfielder Nic Ryan, who leads the UCSB team in both scoring and assists. As a result, the Cardinal will rely heavily on both Thompson and midfielder JJ Koval, a solid player who has consistently helped hold down the midfield. The men also look to take advantage of the loss of key UCSB players Achille Campion and Machael David.
“The boys have been putting in a lot of good scoring opportunities,” Gunn said. “In soccer, you can dominate in so many areas, but if you don’t finish your chances, then you’re out a win. The line between winning and losing is so fine.”
In a showdown between two strong defensive teams, how will the stalemate end? Whatever happens, a draw is not an option for Stanford. Neither is a loss. If the Stanford men hope to maintain their chance at an NCAA tournament run, the team needs to finish their upcoming away game with a resounding victory, especially considering their 6-7-1 record.
Gunn acknowledges the importance of this Friday, saying that the game “is a bit like World Cup finals…we have to go out and get results.”