Aug. 26, 2005
Santa Barbara, Calif. - There is no doubt that UC Santa Barbara's run to the 2004 NCAA Division I National Championship match capped the best season in Gaucho soccer history. Now, with the program entering its 40th season, the question is: "Where do they Gauchos go from here?" The obvious answer is back to the top, to claim the National Championship trophy that they lost in penalty kicks to champions Indiana after battling the Hoosiers to a 1-1 double-overtime tie.
Those in the college soccer community have already given a partial response to the question as UCSB begins the 2005 season with a No. 4 NSCAA preseason national ranking, along with numerous other preseason accolades. However, beginning the season near the top is foreign territory for the Gauchos who prior to 2002 had been ranked nationally just once in their first 36 years of existence.
Seventh-year head coach Tim Vom Steeg, the 2004 NSCAA National Coach of the Year, does not need to be reminded of where the program has come from. "This year what we need to do as a team is build upon what our players over the last several years have left us with and continue to player better soccer," said Vom Steeg. "Whether or not that is to win a National Championship is still to be answered, but now that we have achieved the success on the national level that we have, we need to do our part to stay there."
Although UCSB lost a handful of the program's best players to graduation, it still returns 14 letterwinners and six starters from last year's squad that went a nation's second-best 21-3-1. With a roster highlighted by seniors and team tri-captains Nate Boyden, Pat Scott, and Bryan Byrne, the Gauchos are also ushering in a stellar recruiting class. "Soccer wise, this year's team is the most talented that I have ever had as a coach," said Vom Steeg.
With the departure of All-American Drew McAthy and First Team All-Big West honoree Neil Jones, UCSB's offense will look dramatically different in 2005. Shouldering most of the load in the beginning will be M.A.C. Hermann Candidate and Canadian International midfielder Tyler Rosenlund. The 2004 Freshman All-American returns after having developed into one of the nation's top midfielders towards that latter half of 2004. Roaming the middle of the park with Rosenlund will by a pair of newcomers in freshman Eric Avila, member of the U.S. Under-18 National Team and junior Eric Frimpong, both of whom posses excellent ball control skills and offensive prowess. Junior college transfer Albert Rios adds to the depth of the offensive side of the midfield, giving Santa Barbara an experienced reserve in the wings.
Up top the Gauchos return seniors Jonathan Davis and Ivan Becerra, a tandem that caused fits for the opposition's defense during last year's NCAA Tournament. Davis returns as the team's leading scorer with six goals and three assists in 2004. Becerra comes back after setting up what proved to be UCSB's two biggest goals in last year's NCAA Tournament, the game-winner at UNC Greensboro and the game-tying tally against Indiana. With his speed, sophomore Andrew Proctor will once again be a vital asset to the Gaucho attack. This time, however, he has a year under his belt and the experience of playing alongside some of the top forwards college soccer has had to offer in recent years. With freshmen Paul Kierstead and Nick Perera thrown into the mix, Vom Steeg has the option of going "big" in the box with both players standing 6-3.
The outside midfield spots are where the most competition seems to be taking place early on, with Byrne and sophomores Brennan Tennelle and Matt Williams the early favorites. Byrne has solidified his spot after making his way into the starting lineup towards the second half of last season. When coupled with Tennelle, they give the Gauchos a tremendous amount of speed on the flanks. Williams has great ball control skills and savvy, giving him an edge. He also has the ability to play any position in the midfield. Freshmen Jon Curry and Chris Pontius will also be involved in the midfield, providing a different look with more size and strength on the outside should it be needed.
Defense, as is always the case with a Vom Steeg-coached team, will once again be a strong point for UCSB. With the obvious hole left by All-American Tony Lochhead's graduation, anchoring the backline in the middle will be Soccer America and College Soccer News Preseason All-American Andy Iro who returns for the Gauchos after earning Freshman All-American and College Cup All-Tournament honors in 2004. Showing just how dominant he was, when the then freshman was on the pitch last season UCSB posted a microscopic 0.31 goals against average, allowing just seven goals in over 2060 minutes. Iro will be flanked on the outside by Scott, a First Team All-Big West honoree in 2004, on the right, and junior Jeff Murphy, who returns from the 2003 Sweet 16 squad, on the left. Sophomore Myles Davis could also see some time on the backline after appearing in 15 games as a freshman before suffering an injury near the midpoint of the season. Duke transfer Kyle Kaveny and freshman Patrick Monahan will both add size and depth to the UCSB defense, a luxury that the Gauchos sorely missed near the end of last season when injuries and player availability issues popped-up.
The defensive midfield position will be as solid as ever for Santa Barbara with Boyden returning for his fifth season with the Gauchos. A Second Team All-Big West selection in 2004, his knowledge of the game and his ability to control the defense has been a pivotal component of UCSB's success over the past several years. Freshman Alfonso Motagalvan, a two-time NSCAA High School All-American, played well beyond his years in the preseason, giving the Gauchos the option of utilizing tandem defensive midfielders without any apprehension. Also back at the D-mid spot is senior Chris Hughes who, with his incredible speed and strength, has the proven ability to individually shutdown an opponent's attacking player.
But as is the case with all defenses, it is the last line of defense that is the biggest key. And while the Gauchos lost their all-time shutout leader in All-American Dan Kennedy, the goalkeeper position is in safe hands. Junior Kyle Reynish will be manning the pipes for UCSB this year for the first time as its starting goalkeeper. With ten total matches under his belt he has allowed just one goal in over 425 minutes of play in his career, registering three wins in the process. Freshmen Ryan Kenny and Brenden Baca are both battling it out for the backup position.
And Santa Barbara did not just take the necessary steps to maintain its status as one of the nation's elite on the field, Vom Steeg made improvements outside the lines as well. Back for his fifth season with the Gauchos is assistant coach Leo Chappel who last season was named the NSCAA Western Region Assistant Coach of the Year. Also returning is goalkeeper coach Ryan Sparre who is back for his sixth season with the Gauchos having produced one of the nation's top keepers in Kennedy. What's new to the coaching staff this year is addition of assistant coach Grant Porter. A standout player at North Carolina, Porter helped lead the Tarheels to the national title in 2001.
On paper it would appear that UCSB has put the pieces in place to retain its status as a national power. But then again, that's why you play the games. What's on paper doesn't matter, it's how you perform on the pitch that matters. So when the Gauchos put their pieces together through the course of the 2005 season the question will be answered, and the answer could very well be another long run through the NCAA Tournament.