On paper, the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team is arguably the most talented and well-rounded squad ever to take the field on a brisk night at Harder Stadium.

But individual talent and team depth, Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg warns, can only carry a squad so far on the collegiate level; the rest must come from within.

“I think this is the most complete team we’ve had here at UCSB since I’ve been coaching, but being a complete team doesn’t exactly mean you’re going to win championships or lots of games,” Vom Steeg said. “We’ve recruited even better players [than we had two years ago in the championship run] and the program has gone to a completely different level, but it’s an issue of mental toughness [that will determine how far we go].”

With already four matches against ranked opponents under their belts, the boys in blue have a solid base on which to build their season. Unfortunately, those first four matches did not come without painful lessons borne from defeat.

In the second game of the season, against #1 Virginia (7-0 overall), the Gauchos (4-2 overall, 1-0 in the Big West) fell 1-0 after sophomore midfielder Alfonzo Motagalvin earned a pair of yellow cards that reduced UCSB to 10 men in the first half.

And perhaps even more gut-wrenching was the spectacular fluke of a goal surrendered with 30 seconds to play in the Gauchos’ homestand against #18 University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Gauchos let this one bounce away, when they watched a Chicago defender launch a half-field shot rebound off the crossbar inches above the grasp of senior goaltender Kyle Reynish and right into the path of an oncoming striker. With Reynish incapacitated on the ground, the end of the play was already written and the Gauchos fell 2-1.

Just as last season, injuries have not aided the plight of Santa Barbara this year. Junior defender Greg Curry, who was slated to help lead the backfield with junior Andy Iro last season, stepped onto the field for the first time next to the big man in last Friday’s 1-0 grudge match victory over Loyola Marymount University (3-3 overall).

The Gauchos’ first victory over the Lions in a decade shed light on the naked truth that the sky never stays grey for long in Santa Barbara. And with a team anchored by NCAA-weathered veterans such as senior captain Bryan Byrne on the wing and peppered with new faces like 17-year old freshman striker Bongomin Otii, the team looks more settled than it did a year ago.

“Last year we had a lot of work to do because we were replacing six or seven seniors. And not only that, we had a lot of players who were playing their first college game,” Vom Steeg said. “I don’t think we played our best game until maybe the 18th game of the season; this year I’m certainly hoping that [it doesn’t take that long].”

The biggest story of the 2006 season up to this point is undoubtedly the emergence of Otii as an offensive authority. He’s scored five goals in his first six games as a Gaucho, and that does not include the hat trick he netted in a scrimmage against crosstown rival Westmont.

“We think before he’s done here he’ll break every goal-scoring record there is here,” Vom Steeg said of the freshman. “At some point he’ll cool off maybe a little bit, but the way he plays, it’s pretty hard to keep him from scoring. It’s kind of like keeping Shaq from scoring points in a game; you’re not really going to shut him out.”

The coaching staff at Santa Barbara has undergone quite a shakedown in the offseason as well. The skipper of the 2004 National Championship second-place team, Vom Steeg, is still at the helm, but not a whole lot else has remained the same.

New additions to the staff include former head coach of Philadelphia University, Greg Wilson, goalkeeping specialist Erick Foss and former Gaucho standout and member of the New Zealand national team Neil Jones.

Jones, once the vicious target player that joined with Drew McAthy to power the Gauchos’ offense through the 2004 season, makes the transition to coach just two years out of the Gaucho uniform.

“Neil’s responsibility is with the forwards, so he’s working [primarily] with those six guys,” Vom Steeg said. “If Neil was responsible for the whole team, it might be a little bit harder [to make the transition from teammate to coach], but because what he does is very specialized, if anything I think his youth adds to [his effectiveness as a coach]. And players listen to him because he literally could go out there and do better than most of them.”

The taste of College Cup fever that enveloped this campus two seasons ago is still fresh on the lips of players and students alike. Could something like it happen again? Harder Stadium remains packed with collegiate soccer fans who are dying to find out.