While the UCSB men’s soccer program has made great strides from its low attendance and lower-performance days of yore, it still has a ways to go.

Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg, his assistants and some crucial Gaucho alumni have helped put UCSB on the NCAA soccer map. Santa Barbara’s forays into the NCAA tournament in the past four years have earned name recognition and alone are worthy of praise.

This year, the program is still trying to build on that foundation off the field by setting the goal to lead the nation in attendance. It has attempted to achieve this lofty feat with increased promotions – free stuff for the starving college students, discounted tickets and kids’ activities for the community members. The men’s soccer team and the marketing department have spent beaucoup bucks to get butts in the newly plastic-covered seats at Harder Stadium, and it has worked, sort of.

There is no doubt that the free T-shirts increase student attendance as well as give both a greater visibility and a known presence on campus, but the shirts can only go so far. The only thing holding the program back from joining the ranks of schools like North Carolina and Indiana is the fair-weather ignorant fans, of which UCSB has plenty.

For anyone who attended either the Michigan or UCLA game, there was no mistaking the huge fan presence at Harder. UCSB broke a regular-season attendance record at both games with 3,577 fans watching the Gauchos defeat Michigan and 5,475 in their loss to UCLA. Santa Barbara fans broke a record that had been held since Oct. 13, 1995 when 3,506 came out to watch the Gauchos – who were 12-6-1 overall and 4-3 in the MPSF that year – lose to the Bruins 2-0. That is huge no matter which way you look at it.

Whether it was the lure of giveaways, the prospect of being on TV or the pure love of the game, the crowd at the UCLA game was a large step for the program.

You would think that success would carry over, but disappointment came two days later when the Gauchos played Irvine. After breaking all those attendance records, only 2,367 fans made the trek out to the bleachers for Saturday’s conference matchup. Granted, that is still a large amount of support, but if UCSB drew 2,150 for the Loyola Marymount game when school was not even in session, why couldn’t they double that for a conference game during Fall Quarter?

Apparently, unbeknownst to the common fan, the Irvine game had larger implications for the post-season than either of the record-setting games earlier that week. How many of the fans there on Thursday knew that the Anteaters were actually ranked higher than the Bruins or that they stood atop the Big West standings coming into Harder? Granted, the UCLA loss will be taken into consideration when the NCAA makes its selections for the postseason, but the Irvine match has even heavier postseason implications.

Before UCSB can even think of competing in the Big Dance, it has to do well in conference. Yet, in order to compete with these storied programs, it needs diehard fan support.

There is nothing like the atmosphere when UCSB fans pack Harder Stadium with 5,000 strong – it screams Gaucho pride and it is the closest thing we are going to get to college football.

To get a free men’s soccer t-shirt, Daily Nexus AP Editor Anna Oleson-Wheeler would do anything, even top 2004’s playoff streaker.