IRVINE — In a conference with a penchant for an unsightly brand of play, the UC Irvine men's soccer team showed in the Big West Conference opener Wednesday night that it maintains a preference for a more beautiful game.
The Anteaters, ranked No. 9 by College Soccer News, dominated possession in a scoreless first half and peppered the net after intermission to produce a 3-0 victory over visiting UC Riverside.
The win was the third straight for Coach George Kuntz's two-time defending conference tournament champions (8-1), who have now earned shutouts in each of their victories this season.
Junior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein made just two saves as the hosts amassed an 18-4 shot advantage.
But it wasn't until senior forward Amani Walker knocked one inside the far post in the 47th minute that UCI could fully claim the upper hand on the Highlanders (3-5-1).
The third straight "clean sheet" for the 'Eaters was, however, stained slightly by some wayward elbows, dangerous tackles and other manner of mayhem, as the visitors collected three of the four yellow cards issued and had 14 fouls, one more than those whistled against UCI.
"This was different than anything we've experienced this season," Kuntz said of the rugged play. "There was a lot of cheap talk and stuff on the field and [we] saw the elbow to [senior midfielder Gray Bailey's] mouth. He was feeling his teeth to see if they were moving.
"This is a physical conference and every team we play in this conference, including this team, plays that way. [The Highlanders] just came off a very physical game with [Loyola Marymount] in which I think there was 10 yellow cards. We have, I think, the fewest yellow cards in the conference. So we need to wake up and protect ourselves."
Bailey, who scored the second goal in the 63rd minute, twice found himself on the wet grass checking his facial features for damage.
"It's real physical, man," Bailey said. "I got hit a few times. I definitely got the worst of it. This is definitely one of the more physical leagues in the nation. There's more fouls. It's not necessarily as pretty as other conferences, but it's tough. I got drilled once in the face and took another one later on, but you just have to keep your focus and not let it get to you. I might have a little chipped tooth, but other than that, I think I'm OK."
Junior midfielder Miguel Ibarra made sure the hosts were OK, posting assists on the first two goals. His pass just outside the box found Walker gliding toward the right post for the game-winner. Walker dribbled away from a defender and angled the ball back across his body, just inside the opposite post. It was Walker's team-leading fifth goal of the season.
Ibarra looked for Walker again on the second scoring sequence. But Walker, with two defenders converging on him near the top of the box, deliberately let the ball go through his legs. Bailey, ran onto the rolling pass and directed it past the charging keeper.
Junior Christian Hernandez finalized the scoring in the 64th minute, taking a pass from Spencer Thompson, dribbling around the keeper who was about 10 yards in front of the goal, and directing a shot behind him into the open net.
Kuntz said he was happy with the shutout, as well as the conference-opening win.
"It's the first game of conference, so it's got to be a big one," said Bailey, a team co-captain. "We wanted to make a statement the first game and I thought we came out and really did that. We possessed the ball well and we finished our chances."
Bailey had five shots, while Walker and Hernandez had three apiece. Ibarra, Thompson, Corey Attaway, Jorge Reyes, Christopher Santana, and Brett Berman also fired shots for the hosts.
The four-man back line of Attaway, Jimmy Turner, Joel Bagby and Everett Pitts also helped preserve the shutout.
With the game in command, UCI removed all but three starters, allowing several first-year players to get acclimated to the Big West brand of play.
The Anteaters, who have now outscored opponents, 24-2, this season, visit Drake for a nonconference clash Saturday.