With the afternoon sun parching UCSB’s new artificial turf in front of the RecCen, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg addressed his team as only a true teacher would. Referencing his team’s status atop the nation and praised its recent success, he then went on to stress what really mattered.
Yeah, the Gauchos are currently ranked #1 in the country, and yes, they recently dethroned defending national champion Indiana, but all the head coach could talk about was academics and how the team maintained over a 3.0 cumulative GPA last year. Perhaps this is why Vom Steeg has turned UCSB into a national powerhouse and arguably the best in the land. He and his Gauchos have their priorities straight.
For the past three seasons, Santa Barbara has only rented a spot on the national soccer landscape, flirting with the top 15 and snagging two NCAA Tournament victories in as many years. This year, the Gauchos appear to be homeowners.
“This is definitely the goal we set for ourselves. One of the goals we set was to start of 6-0,” senior striker Drew McAthy said. “We knew we had a couple big road trips, and we’re playing pretty well right now. But we know we can still get better, and that’s something we’re going to look forward to doing in the next few games here.”
Two weeks ago, UCSB traveled back east in hopes of cementing itself as a legitimate contender for a national title. Vom Steeg scheduled games against, Seton Hall, then #21-ranked and #30 UConn, knowing he would have a group of seniors primed to steal the collegiate soccer spotlight – and they did exactly that. Anchored by senior goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, the Gauchos blanked Seton Hall 2-0 in the first game of the UConn Husky Classic and then handled the host team 1-0 the next day.
“With Connecticut, we actually really beat that team. We went after them and created a lot of chances and the score probably should have been 3- or 4-0,” Vom Steeg said. “So there was really a tremendous feeling about what we had done against Connecticut. Against Indiana, though, we just kind of looked around and were like ‘wow’. I mean, we were excited we won, but man was that just a war.”
Where the Gauchos stand currently, a national championship would not only seem to be feasible, it would almost seem probable if the Gauchos can remain healthy and continue to be stingy on the defensive end. Kennedy has been all but flawless in UCSB’s first six games. This week’s National Player of the Week allowed his first goal of the season in Santa Barbara’s last game to Columbia, but went 748 straight minutes without a goal scored previous to the meaningless goal.
“Right now, we’re trying to build out of the back as much as we can and it seems like it’s been working for us. We went away from that in the second half of the Indiana game and it hurt us, so as long as we can possess the ball in the back we can find our midfielders and we carry the possession of the game, and the longer we hold the ball, the longer we’ll be attacking, and that’s always where you want to be.”
Kennedy credits part of his success to the Gauchos second-to-last line of defense. Senior defender Tony Lochhead, freshmen defenders Andy Iro, John Apilado and Greg Curry, and a host of other Gauchos have limited opponents to an average of 12.6 shots per game.
“Since we got here freshman year, we’ve thrived on hard work and our commitment to play a certain way, and it hasn’t changed this year and it’s shown in our defense,” senior forward Drew McAthy said. “We’ve only given up one goal, and it starts with Danny and goes all the way up to the forwards up top.”
Up top, Santa Barbara portrays one of the best front lines in the game. Senior forwards Neil Jones and McAthy bring big-game experience and 58 career goals between them. Five of those belong to McAthy this year already.
“We still have a lot of work to do on scoring goals. We have, I feel, the best attacking group of players we’ve had since I’ve been here, yet we haven’t really clicked offensively,” Vom Steeg said. “We’re still waiting for that last part of our game, which usually comes last – the attacking part.”
The biggest question mark going into the 2004 campaign was their midfield. UCSB lost its entire midfield from 2003 to graduation, including Memo Arzate, one of the premier playmakers in the nation.
So far the midfield has held up, but Vom Steeg would like to see more activity from his middle.
“It’s still a work in progress. We’re still having a little trouble out of our midfield linking up with our forward line and getting our outside midfielders involved in the attack,” Vom Steeg said. “A real telling sign for us is we’re still waiting for Neil’s first goal, and last year he had 13, I believe, and Neil is dependent on good services, especially out wide. So when we start getting balls served in and are also dangerous in front, then I think we’ll be a real hard team to beat.”
What separates this Santa Barbara squad from those of the past is its depth. Vom Steeg assembled one of the top recruiting classes in the nation to solidify what was already a potent team.
“We’re deeper than we’ve ever been off the bench, but half the team is new this year,” Kennedy said. “But I think each day we’re together, we’re going to build.”