Irvine, CA – Made the quick journey south to catch the UCI Anteaters hosting the St Mary’s Gaels in 2nd round NCAA tournament action on a rainy night. Yep, packed the umbrella, towels, notebook, and camera and combatted the rain along with the other 656 people in attendance. The game had lots of promise. The Big West champs UC Irvine vs the West Coast Conference champs St Mary’s. The Gaels pulled off another upset in dramatic fashion with a 2-1 overtime win to clinch a spot in the sweet 16.
UC Irvine: 4-1-4-1
Gk: #1 Andrew Fontein
Def: #3 Marco Franco, #15 Everett Pitts, #12 Jake Marcon, #4 Bello Alhassan
Holding Mid: # 13 Tarek Morad
Mf: #7 Christopher Santana, #6 Jimmy Turner, #9 Christian Hernandez, #10 Miguel Ibarra
Fw: #21 Lester Hayes III
St Marys: 4-4-2
Gk: #1 Doug Herrick
Def: #20 Bobby Conner, #14 Tom Mohoric, #2 Trevor Newquist, #16 Nathan Arambula
Mf: #15 Justin Grider, #19 Malcolm Alugas, #7 Jose Cabeza, #9 Julian Godinez
Fw: #10 Emmanuel Sarabia, #11 Agustin Cazarez
UC Irvine Breakdown
To be fair, I was critical of UCI when covering their first game and predicted they would struggle. They shut me up to a certain extent posting 16 wins, staying high in the national polls, and winning the Big West double – taking both the regular season title and the conference tournament. They haven’t exactly played the best soccer, but the results have been positive for several years now. Unfortunately the wet conditions didn’t help their cause, and a gritty St Mary’s put an end to the Anteaters.
Andrew Fontein’s stellar career (in Irvine) under the pipes has come to an end. He played his part in attempting to prolong it though. Fontein made 2 point blank saves to keep hopes alive. When I say saves, I mean game saving plays where the shots were certain goals and 90% of the time the net is shaking. This guy has provided the security a team needs at this level for a long time. I see Fontein getting a crack at the MLS draft in January.
Irvine’s right back Marco Franco is complete quality!!! He is arguably the best right back in the nation. His defending is superb. His calmness on the ball is remarkable. He may be the best professional prospect on this team. His offensive projections are reminiscent of Dani Alves. Everett Pitts is a physical specimen and difficult to beat. His clearances under pressure left a lot to be desired – out of bounds almost every time. The remaining two, Bello Alhassan and Jake Marcon should not be on the field; period. I don’t know how a top 10 team has such fragile players with little technical ability holding down the fort in the back. A couple suitable replacements, and the Anteaters would have been that much better.
The midfield has a super player in Miguel Ibarra. The guy can play! He runs for days, has great technique, can dribble, and shoot. He’s pretty complete BUT there is one big question here. Will he be appreciated in MLS? Hopefully he can land in the right environment where he can survive, and not be a “one and done” – like Irving Garcia was a couple years back. Ibarra had to leave the game in the 12th minute barely able to walk on his own. Not a good sign. Fortunately he returned for the 2nd half and overtime. He finished a close range effort to tie the game and force overtime. Santana is another electric player on the wing. He combines very well with Franco on the right. That duo will be doing damage for two more years. Turner and Morad are both average midfielders. Turner has good work rate but offers very little as a central midfielder. Morad has quality on the ball, but lacks defensive bite to be a force as a holding midfielder. Christian Hernandez is hit or miss. He can have match winning quality one game, and be nonexistant the next. He was invisible this match.
The starting forward Lester Hayes was a complete zero on the night. Don’t know why he started or played as much as he did. He is a big boy, but doesn’t play like one. He cannot combine well with other talented attacking players in Ibarra, Santana, and Hernandez. Perhaps he is the best bet at matching the physicality of the opponent. Enrique Cardenas looked ok when he came on for Ibarra. He can certainly do the job better and is a force near the box. He also lacks match fitness after suffering numerous injuries during the season. Juan Gutierrez is another top talent who isn’t completely fit after being out a lengthy spell with an ACL tear. Cameron Iwasa is another freshmen that works his socks off up top or on the wing. UCI has a wealth of attacking talent but needs to have a player that will fit the system and the players around them. The Anteaters are young and will definitely be back in the picture next season.
Saint Mary’s Breakdown
The Gaels got to this point after putting together 3 consecutive 1-0 victories to win the West Coast Conference tournament and knock off Cal State Bakersfield in the first round of the NCAA. They’ve shown they can grind out wins this time of year against formidable opposition. They may not play the prettiest soccer, but they’ve converted the few opportunities created and locked down the opposition.
Doug Herrick kept his cool and stopped everything UCI threw at him through 83 minutes. During the second half, balls mixed in with the rain and came from all angles into his box. He held firm until Ibarra got a sloppy goal off a rebound and scramble in the box. Herrick was good in the air and did well taking balls off the skip in the wet conditions. Three clean sheets coming into this game is impressive as well. He will have to be at the top of his game for Saint Mary’s to knock out their third NCAA tournament road win.
The back row didn’t have too many complications. I thought that Connor was going to suffer on the wing in his match up with Ibarra. Fortunately for him Ibarra limped off after 13 minutes, because he looks to be the weak link on this team. Mohoric and Arambula are big and strong defenders who win their tackles and win their battles in the air.
Jose Cabeza and Julien Godinez have got a clue of how to knock the ball. They were composed, and at times slowed the frenetic pace of the game – something that helped the team catch its breath before defending for its life in the second half. Justin Grider is your typical D1 college player who just battles and hustles but doesn’t understand what change of pace means. He’s always at one speed like most players here; FAST and erratic.
The two up top are both decent, but not match winning talent. Cabeza and Cazares didn’t create much offense on their own. I’m thinking the Gaels don’t produce much out of open play. They rely mostly on set pieces or long throw ins. Both goals came off poor clearances and second balls after a corner kick and long throw.
This was a strange game of soccer where no team showed clear superiority over the other. I expected more out of UC Irvine, but they were hit with injuries in the 1st half and poor weather conditions, which may have thrown them off the game plan. Neither team produced much offense during the run of play.
Saint Mary’s opened the scoring in the 57th minute after a corner kick clearance fell to the top of the box: Riley Hanley did the rest. He gathered it, made a quick move to his left and shot a low driven ball that flew through the crowd of players into the side net far post. This goal created some excitement in the game as UCI was forced to have more urgency and attack.
Coach Kuntz put out all his offensive talent and altered his formation to a 3-4-3 in the 68th minute. All his attacking talent was on the field and they put loads of pressure on the Gaels. Santana came close – rattling the cross bar with a clever left footed shot from the corner of the 18. It took another set piece in the 83rd minute (if you can call a long throw that), for a goal to be scored. Jimmy Turner launched a throw into the box; and after a mad scramble to clear it failed, the ball fell to Ibarra who calmly slipped it in from inside the 6. The Anteaters mysteriously took their foot off the gas with 7 minutes left and went back to their normal formation instead of pressing for the win.
They paid the price in double overtime as another set piece came into the box and Fontein saved the day with a point blank save. It was only a matter of time as seconds later another long throw in (surprise surprise) led to the golden goal scored by sophmore sub Justin Howard from close range.
The Anteaters are surely devastated with this result after getting the highest win output (16) and NCAA seeding in program history. They had the opportunity to host another match and potentially reach the elite 8. They lose their keeper Fontein and best offensive weapon in Ibarra, but have tons of young talent to survive and defend their Big West crown. Coach Kuntz is going to have to figure out how to get his boys over the postseason hurdle they’ve failed to clear in the last several years. Fortunately, he has plenty of weapons at his disposal and has been one of the best recruiters in Southern California over the years; so look for this team to come back hungry in 2012.
Saint Mary’s College might just be the cinderella story on this tournament. They figure out how to pound out W’s and are one win away from an Elite 8 appearance in their 2nd NCAA tournament in program history. Their next opponent, Brown University, is nothing special so its a winnable game. Whoever comes out of that one will have reached the end of the road, since looming in the quarterfinals is a date @ UNC.
Next up for me will be UCLA vs Rutgers tonight at 5pm PST.
For the game of the week, check out #2 Creighton vs #15 UCSB today at 11 am PST. There is live online streaming.