October 1, 2009

Quick Hits: Indiana-UCSB match has it all

Oct. 1, 2009

It's UCSB vs. Indiana, two of the premier programs in the country. It's a national TV game. And it's a celebration of the 2004 team that rocked the college soccer world and stamped the Gauchos as a national powerhouse in the sport.

What other reasons do you need to be in attendance at Harder Stadium on Friday night?

"My plan is this place is going to be full," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said about the 8 p.m. clash between national championship programs. Indiana has won seven titles, its last coming against the Gauchos in a penalty-kick shootout in that memorable 2004 final at the Home Depot Center.

UCSB won its first title in 2006.

Indiana is to men's soccer what North Carolina and UCLA are to college men's basketball. And just like when North Carolina came to play UCSB at the Thunderdome last November, the Hoosiers playing at Harder Stadium is a huge deal.

The Fox Soccer Channel thought so when it made up its schedule of national broadcasts.

And, if that's not special enough, UCSB's honoring of the 2004 team for what it accomplished five years ago is worth the price of admission.

The rage over UCSB soccer in the community started with the 2004 team. The Gauchos' quarterfinal game against Virginia Commonwealth drew 11,214 fans at Harder Stadium, making it one of the largest college crowds in history. Their overwhelming 4-1 victory that night advanced the Gauchos to their first NCAA College Cup and generated pandemonium in Isla Vista. Delirious students carried the soccer goals out of the stadium after the victory.

"This is like ridiculous," said freshman defender Andy Iro, who scored two goals in the game.

Vom Steeg is expecting 16-17 players from the squad to be at the stadium. "The only guys that are not coming back are not simply because they are playing pro," he said. "It's incredible. We have seven guys playing professional soccer five years later."

I had the privilege of covering the 2004 team. It truly was a special group. The seniors on that squad definitely paid their dues before reaching the spotlight. They experienced the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA tournament in 2001, the exhilaration of winning the school's first tournament game in 2002 and the heartache of being eliminated in a controversial finish in a 2003 quarterfinal match at St. John's.

The 2004 team had it all -- experience, skill, leadership, versatility, savvy, bite and swagger. It shook up the soccer establishment with its physical style of play. I remember reading an item in Soccer America magazine in which Connecticut coach Ray Reid and Indiana's Jerry Yeagley criticized the Gauchos for playing like thugs. Of course, their comments came after their teams were beaten.

This team's aggressive style wasn't saved for the opposition, either. The players were equally hard on each other in practice. I'll never forget one practice that I attended in which Neil Jones hit Bryan Byrne so hard that Byrne flipped over and slammed to the turf. Bryne immediately bounced back to his feet and went after Jones before teammates intervened.

That was part of the team's character -- they played with an edge. But it wasn't all about being physical. This team had finesse, too. Left back Tony Lochhead was as savvy a player as they come. He would cooly upend a striker and steal the ball at one end of the field, dribble 50 yards up the left side and hit a perfect cross into the box for a goal-scoring opportunity.

When it came to scoring, there was none better than striker Drew McAthy. A fantastic finisher, he scored 18 goals that season, including three in the playoffs.

At the other end of the field, Danny Kennedy was the rock-solid goalkeeper and field general. He allowed only 14 goals that season. His backup, Kyle Reynish, was a supreme shot blocker; he stopped two penalty kicks in the shootout with Indiana in the College Cup final.

Then there were players like Jones, Matt Bly, Jon Apilado and Nate Boyden who could play any position on the field. Greg Curry, Pat Scott, Iro and Lochhead were tenacious on the back line; Tyler Rosenlund set up teammates with his accurate passing from the center of the field; Byrne consistently ran by people on the outside; Ivan Becerra possessed a wicked shot; Chris Hughes provided solid play off the bench and Jonathan Davis added power and punch up front.

Myles Davis, Brennan Tennelle, Tino Nuñez, Corey Wood and Efren Matt also made important contributions.

Together, they made up a special team.

"It will be an incredible celebration," Vom Steeg said. "It's going to be magical for one night.

"I don't know what's going to happen on the soccer field, but it should be pretty good," he added. "Both teams have nothing to lose; we're both highly ranked. The bottom line is we should have a good game."

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