Kia Nooshi, CW

UC Riverside’s men’s soccer team edged a win over UC Santa Barbara this past weekend in the Big West finals, picking up their second trophy of the season and booking a spot in the NCAA men’s college soccer tournament. The Highlanders came into the matchup looking to win their first Big West tournament since their last win in 2018 as the one seed and were slightly favored over the two-seeded Gauchos who they had beaten just a few weeks prior 4-1. 

Courtesy of UCR Athletics

The Highlanders started the game off slowly, struggling to maintain possession and resorting to long balls up to the strikers as a means of getting out of their own half. Head Coach Tom Cupello said of the slow start that the Gauchos “came out in a completely different tactic and a completely different formation … than what we had prepared for to be honest.” The Gauchos stifled UCR’s attack by man-marking UCR’s attacking midfielders and preventing the Highlanders from transitioning the play up the field as they had been able to do a few weeks prior. Tim Cupello made some key adjustments noting that this would be a defensive battle rather than an offensive one showing why he won Big West coach of the year as the Highlanders were able to slowly get a foothold in the game and have their first massive chance of the game as a Highlander corner resulted in a shot by sophomore defender AJ Meade-Tatum which catapulted off the crossbar around the 26th minute.

This match was physical from start to finish with a whopping 32 fouls being committed throughout the contest with 14 of those coming in the first half. A foul by UC Santa Barbara in the 42nd minute proved to be a decisive action in the game as from the resulting free kick, senior defender Brendan Clark lofted a great cross into sophomore forward Luka Lukic who was able to convert the chance which gave the Highlanders the game-deciding goal. Lukic had just been on the field for nine minutes before his goal having been brought on to provide the Highlanders with more aerial ability versus the Gauchos’ insanely physical center back partnership. When asked about the physicality of the match, Lukic said, “being physical is not a new thing for me. Obviously this is a championship game, so I was ready for it and a few bruises is the least I can want from this game so I don’t really mind it.”

The Highlanders went into the half with a 1-0 lead which would not have been possible without junior goalkeeper and tournament MVP Carlos Gonzalez who made four huge saves in the first half to help maintain UCR’s lead. When asked about the shutout performance Gonzalez chose to praise his teammates saying, “there’s a lot of uncredited moments for our backline, that they go out and battle and make my job as easy as they can and when the moments that I need to step up and have their back. That’s when I do my job.” 

The second half, much like the first, was incredibly physical and full of adversity as the Gauchos mounted a spirited attempt at opening the Highlanders’ goal — but to no avail. Cupello said of his players’ ability to overcome adversity, “These guys could’ve easily thrown in the towel after the first few weeks when the losses were coming, but they stuck with and believed in the process. We kept chopping wood and carrying water and believing what’s the next step.” This belief was on full display in the packed stadium as UCR bent, but never broke, under the pressure of the final against a very good Gauchos team. 

The Highlanders now look to the NCAA tournament which is due to start this upcoming Thursday, Nov. 17, as they wait to see who their opponents will be when schedules are released on Monday. When asked about the team moving forward, Lukic said, “we’re not stopping here. We are going to have a little recovery and then I’m telling you this team is ready for whatever team, whatever challenge that comes to us. So going to the nationals, Ready.”