Most fall quarter freshmen are worried about avoiding the “freshman 15” and transitioning from home to independent college life. For freshman Josh McNeely, fall quarter of his first collegiate year has brought a much bigger challenge: manning the starting goalkeeper spot for one of the biggest collegiate soccer programs in the nation.
An undeclared major, McNeely has helped UCSB win five straight matches, and has proven that even freshmen can come into college and immediately become the big man on campus.
“[Starting as a freshman is] definitely a big honor. I wasn’t really expecting it coming into this year, but I’ve just tried to work hard and earn a spot and do what I can in the games to help our team win,” McNeely said. “It’s definitely something that’s been really exciting and something that I’ve worked for my whole life.”
Soccer came naturally early on to McNeely as he began playing at the age of four amongst a number of other sports. However, soccer always stood out to Josh as his favorite and the one he was best at.
By age 10, McNeely made the part-time transition to goalkeeper, a move that became permanent at the age of 12.
“I started playing goalkeeper when I was around 10, which is kind of late,” McNeely said. “My coach put me in there because I was one of the biggest guys on the team. Just making big saves in big games attracted me to the position.”
Although his move to goalkeeper may have been purely random based on his size, McNeely immediately showed he had a knack for the position.
His U-16 squad won the U.S. Soccer Academy National Championship, a personal highlight of McNeely’s youth career. Perhaps his most influential moments in youth soccer however came from his training with the Los Angeles Galaxy Academy. While there, he learned from Ian Feuer, current goalkeeper coach for the Galaxy and former MLS and English Premier League goalie.
“He definitely was a mentor and a great coach growing up,” McNeely said. “He taught me most of what I know about goalkeeping and the position, everything from technique to the mental part of the game. He’s definitely a big reason why I’m still playing today at this level.”
Growing up in Calabasas, a mere hour from Santa Barbara, McNeely had familiarity with both Santa Barbara and UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg. Josh’s parents were family friends with Vom Steeg’s sister-in-law, a coincidence that put McNeely on UCSB’s radar since he was 12.
“When Josh was a young player, I would hear stories from my sister-in-law that her friend’s son was a really good soccer player. The funny part is that you hear that story quite a bit,” Vom Steeg said.
McNeely committed to attend UCSB his junior year of high school, attributing the weather, location, atmosphere and large and successful soccer program for bringing him an hour north of his childhood.
As coincidence would have it again, McNeely came to Santa Barbara with a fellow impact freshman in midfielder Drew Murphy, with whom Josh had played against growing up since the age of nine until they played on the same Galaxy team at 14.
“The Galaxy both called us in when we were 14. And it’s funny going from rivals to being good friends on the same team,” Murphy said. “Josh, when we were little, I would like to say he was a knucklehead because of the rivalry.”
Now in Santa Barbara, McNeely has risen to the challenge of starting as a true freshman, allowing only eight goals in 11 starts, four of which were shutouts. UCSB has won eight of Josh’s 11 starts and seems to have finally found its groove with its first year goalkeeper.
“He’s been able to avoid mistakes and that’s kind of the real key right now. Every game that goes by, I think he gains some real confidence,” Vom Steeg said. “He has the respect of the players in front of him, he has the respect of the team.”
With a senior-led backline, the Gauchos defense has been the anchor of the team the entire season, a statement made that much more accurate with McNeely’s emergence. During the first week of conference play, McNeely garnered Big West Defensive Player of the Week honors, and helped lead UCSB to four straight victories to open conference play.
Already in his first two months in college, McNeely has shown he has all the tools necessary to help UCSB achieve its goal of winning the Big West crown.
“The good thing about Josh is he’s very humble, he takes a workmanlike approach. I think he has the right mentality and temperament,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s a calm player; he doesn’t play nervous even if he is nervous. Those are all characteristics that can take you far.”
While McNeely wants to improve as a player during college, his ultimate dream is to play professionally, either overseas or in the U.S.
“Without a doubt [he’ll play professionally], I don’t even think that’s a question at this point. He has all the tools he needs and it’s just up to him whether or not he wants to,” Murphy said. “As a goalie, it takes a lot more time than a field player. The pro game will without a doubt be in his future at some point.”
The way McNeely has handled the pressure as not only the starting goalkeeper for UCSB but as a freshman transitioning to college, makes his future in Santa Barbara and beyond looks promising.
With McNeely between the posts this season and hopefully for the next three after, the Gauchos possess one of the most promising defensive players in the entire country.
“He has the skill set to play at the next level. He has the right temperament to play goalkeeper at the next level,” Vom Steeg said. “The question is going to be what he puts into it.”
UCSB continues play Saturday when they face UC Davis on the road for a 3 p.m. kickoff.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of October 16, 2013′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo Courtesy of UCSB Athletics.