Ultimate success is always measured in championships, but for now, the Gauchos can boast the most fulfilling phrase in sports: “We’re # 1!”
The UCSB men’s soccer team is fresh off a victory over then-top-ranked Indiana – the most storied soccer program in history – and has cruised to an early 6-0-0 record in 2004 after winning the UNM adidas/Crescent Solutions Invitational title, a feat that boosted UCSB to its first-ever #1 national ranking by Soccer America.
Led by a tandem of senior strikers, a stellar defensive line and the nation’s premier goalkeeper, Santa Barbara has stifled each of its opponents – and it’s done it on the road, convincingly. The Gauchos saw the nation’s top midfielder last year, Memo Arzate, but Santa Barbara hasn’t lost a beat, turning role players in 2003 into All-Conference caliber guys this season. UCSB prides itself on its work ethic and its toughness, promising to out-hustle and out-muscle every 50/50 ball and each battle in the air. The Gauchos clock in for the dirty work in the midfield and defensive end, controlling the pace of the game and tiring their opponents. Once comfortably situated, Santa Barbara’s towering strikers supply the dagger with laser-precise shooting and unmatched physical presence.
This year’s squad certainly is savvy, but success shouldn’t be surprising. UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg has built a perennially legitimate national contender over the last several years, meshing blue-chip phenoms with community college talent and international studs. With the addition of popular Assistant Coach Leo Chappel four years ago, the Gauchos have been able to keep a bevy of California’s soccer-rich talent in the state. The old “party school by the beach” has transformed into a national program and the best soccer school in the state, a title once contended for by only UCLA and Cal.
Senior goalkeeper Dan Kennedy is likely to keep his goals-against average at miniscule proportions (0.16 entering tonight’s contest with Riverside), and the Gauchos will look to avenge their second-place conference finish a year ago with a Big West title in 2004. Santa Barbara has proven its talent and already flexed its playoff toughness with an ’03 Sweet Sixteen appearance and treacherous nonconference road wins to start the 2004 campaign.
Jumping out of the gates with a sprint, UCSB has earned a #1 national ranking but also raised a giant bull’s-eye on its backside. The Gauchos must enjoy their recognition and celebrate their success but also remember how success will ultimately be judged this season. UCSB has a chance at a special season, an opportunity to bring a national championship to Santa Barbara. With the adrenaline subsiding after its early sprint, the Gauchos will be the talk of the collegiate soccer world. Time will only tell if these tales turn into a storybook ending.