Big West men's soccer making waves

 

By Mechelle Voepel, ESPN.com

OK, so the timing isn't exactly perfect. The men's soccer College Cup was in Big West territory last year, at UC Santa Barbara's Harder Stadium. The attendance was good … but imagine what it might have been if the host Gauchos and/or another Big West school had been playing.

If the early part of this season is any indication, it won't be a surprise to see a Big West team involved in the 2011 College Cup. Or maybe more than one?

"The conference has had a really good opening," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said of the Big West. "I think we've been a little young and struggled more the last two years, but we have some older teams this year. I think it's going to be a very good year for the conference."

The 2011 College Cup will be in Birmingham, Ala. No, the SEC doesn't sponsor men's soccer, but Conference USA does. UAB is the host school for that December event; SMU is the Conference USA defending champion and favorite again this season.

The men's soccer season already has seen two teams in the No. 1 spot fall. Louisville started the season on that perch but lost to North Carolina. Then in a shocker to open the ACC season Saturday, the No. 1 Tar Heels fell in double overtime to Virginia Tech, which was picked to finish last in the league.

Maryland moved to No. 1 this week, and the Terps immediately had to fight off an upset. They defeated UMBC (Maryland Baltimore County) 4-3 in overtime Tuesday. The Terps received 20 first-place votes in the NSCAA poll; two votes went to Connecticut and the other went to UC Irvine.
 
The Anteaters (6-0) have their highest ranking in school history at No. 5. Right behind them at No. 6 is Big West foe UCSB, and another league school, Cal State Fullerton, is receiving votes in the NSCAA poll. The Titans are 4-0-1, with the scoreless draw coming against last season's NCAA champion, Akron, on Sept. 1.
 
UC Davis of the Big West also has a notable early-season victory, having downed then-ranked UCLA 2-1 in overtime Sept. 4. Cal Poly has started 2-1-2 but is also a very good team; the Mustangs travel east to face Syracuse and Akron this weekend.
 
UC Irvine won last year's regular-season Big West title. UCSB, which won the 2010 league tournament, is the favorite this year.
 
The Anteaters lost their top seven scorers from 2010, but they've been buoyed by performances such as that of sophomore forward Enrique Cardenas. He had two goals in a double-overtime, 3-2 victory at Wisconsin on Sept. 9.
 
Meanwhile, the Gauchos had a successful trip to ACC territory the first weekend in September, beating Duke and NC State. This past weekend at home, they knocked off then-No. 12 West Virginia and tied with Villanova.

UCSB brought back six starters from a 2010 team that went 14-5-3 and fell to Cal in double overtime in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament.

"I will say, given where we normally are at this point in a season, I do feel we have a lot of experience," Vom Steeg said. "Unlike the last two years, where I felt like we had to go through some tough early games just to find ourselves, I think we're a little further along now.  

Sophomore forward David Opoku leads the Gauchos with four goals. Newcomer Peter Schmetz, a sophomore from Germany who played at Westmont College in Santa Barbara last year, is a 6-foot-6 defender. Another German player, goalkeeper Andre Grandt, is also in his first season in Santa Barbara, having played previously at Tyler Junior College in Texas. He won juco national championships there in 2009 and '10.

"It's the first time we've had the opportunity to work with any German players," Vom Steeg said. "It's turned out pretty well so far. They've stepped into our defense, which did lose some players. Peter was brought in specifically at 6-6 to help us because we gave up 17 set-piece goals last year. 

"In college soccer, the last 5 to 10 minutes of a lot of games end up being balls dumped in your box. We struggled with winning that first head ball in those situations last year, and then gave up second chances. It's unusual to find players Peter's size who are also really good on the ball, but that's the case with him."

The Anteaters and Gauchos will have their top-10 rankings tested this weekend. UCSB travels to UCLA on Friday. UC Irvine has a much longer trip; the Anteaters visit the "other" sunshine state. They'll face Florida Gulf Coast on Friday then No. 17 South Florida on Sunday.

Beginning in the last week of September, things will get really interesting. That's when the Big West teams start facing each other.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

 

 

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