As a fan of UCSB soccer, it would be easy to get used to the success: nine consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, a National Championship in 2006, 16 All-Americans and 14 current professional players. The list goes on, but to assume that the success has been a constant would be a mistake.
[media-credit name=”Daily Nexus File Photo” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“The program had very few resources,” Vom Steeg said. “What I did know was that people are attracted to Santa Barbara, people would enjoy playing in Santa Barbara and I felt like the students who attended UCSB were the kind of students who, if the team won, would come out and support soccer.”
Keeping only a handful of the players he inherited, Vom Steeg shifted the program’s emphasis, establishing specific expectations for the team to meet instead of merely hoping for the best. The results were immediate. In his first game ever as head coach, he took a 2-0 win over conference rival Cal Poly.
“He immediately turned things around,” UCSB Assistant Athletics Director Bill Mahoney said. “It was pretty amazing. His teams bring the same intensity to the field that he brings as a coach on an everyday basis. He recruited better players, compiled a really good coaching staff and it was night and day. Everything. You could tell that the players believed in themselves.”
UCSB won 13 games in 1999 — only the third time the team had met that win total in the school’s program’s 33-year history. When he arrived, Vom Steeg set a goal of five years before the team would be competing for a National Championship. Sure enough, by 2004, he was at the helm of the best team he had ever coached, poised to make some noise in the NCAA playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Gauchos, the squad lost the College Cup championship game to Indiana in penalty kicks after dominating possession and shot numbers through regulation.
“Someone tell me that we lost,” Vom Steeg told the press after the game. “It’s disappointing because I thought we played so well. Not in my wildest dreams did I think we could play that well against that team over the course of 110 minutes, so I thought it was a great performance.”
Two years later, the team would still be reeling, opening the 2006 season with a 7-6 record midway through the 2006 season. Before Vom Steeg, the team would have rolled over and given up on a season going nowhere. For those Gauchos, though, giving up was not an option.
“They decided as a group that they didn’t want their careers to end, so the players decided we were going to do something different,” Vom Steeg explained. “We just started playing better, and we eventually caught fire.”
UCSB rode that heat all the way to 11 wins in 12 games, including six in a row on the way to a second national championship appearance. This time, they took down UCLA 2-1 for the program’s first College Cup victory.
“It was more than just a win,” defender Andy Iro, who currently plays for the Columbus Crew in the MLS, told the Daily Nexus after the match. “A lot of guys and coaches came through here and this is a culmination of all of this.”
Since 2007, UCSB has led the nation in attendance every year, including setting an all-time record for an on-campus site when 15,896 Gaucho faithfuls attended a match against the Bruins this season.
With wins in that match, as well as against Duke, both in front of national television cameras, the 2010 team looked ready to pick up the intensity again, with a chance to play a championship game in front of the largest home crowd in the country. Like the 2006 team, Vom Steeg’s group faced a less than ideal start.
“Any time you start at 0-2-2, you can self-destruct and doubt yourself,” Vom Steeg said. “But we believed we were destined to do other things.”
Again, the team recovered, managing to finish the regular season 12-4-3. In the first round of the NCAAs, the team cruised to a first-round win over Denver before falling to UC Berkeley in overtime. In the 24th minute of regulation, a controversial red card called against junior midfielder Luis Silva brought the Gauchos a man down for the remainder of the match.
“It’s been very difficult on the coaching staff, on the players and difficult certainly for a lot of our fans,” Vom Steeg said of the early exit. “When things like this happen, all you can really do is channel that energy into your team, into helping your players. Any time negative things happen, it brings your group closer together.”
After losing just three seniors, UCSB is already looking ahead to next year.
“If anything, this is a team that I wouldn’t want to play next year,” Vom Steeg said. “We are unbelievably motivated. I think this is as motivated a group as you’re going to get.”