Andy Iro is not your typical college soccer player. The six-foot-four senior defenseman from Liverpool, England has talent and professional potential most players only dream about. He has garnered numerous accolades, ranging from Big West Freshman of the Year in 2004, to the College Cup Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the Gauchos’ championship run last year. He has helped carry his team to two national championship appearances in four years and three Big West titles. And what’s more, the current face of Santa Barbara soccer went largely unrecruited.
It all started when Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg received an e-mail from Iro, requesting to be recruited.
“I receive a lot of e-mails from a lot of players around the world, and most of them I don’t follow up on,” Vom Steeg said. “But it’s hard to find a six-foot-four centerback.”
Vom Steeg replied to Iro’s e-mail, and the two began talking about the possibility of the tall defender becoming a Gaucho.
“A lot of people rejected me and just weren’t interested,” Iro said. “But Tim gave me the chance, and as soon as I came here I just realized this was the place I wanted to be.”
Shortly afterward. Iro enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, and the rest is history. Vom Steeg openly admits having no idea at the time just how great his decision would turn out.
“We needed a big, strong, athletic physical defender, and Andy looked the part,” Vom Steeg said. “I didn’t really have plan B; you just have to roll the dice sometimes.”
When Iro entered as a freshman in 2004, he had no idea what to expect, but was impacted immediately by the team’s goalkeeper, senior Danny Kennedy.
“Danny brought a passion and love for the game that I hadn’t witnessed before,” Iro said, strong praise coming from a man who grew up in soccer-crazy Great Britain. In that first season, Iro leaned on the leadership from Kennedy and the team’s other seniors to help him make the difficult switch to American college ball. In that first season, Iro leaned on Kennedy and the other senior teammates’ leadership to help him adjust to the difficult switch from British high school ball to American college ball.
“I think [during] his freshman year he relied mostly on his athleticism,” Vom Steeg said. “He also struggled with referees. We just play differently here. He had an adjustment period, but he loved Santa Barbara and he loved the players he was with.”
With Iro’s help on the defensive backline, the 2004 squad went all the way to the National Championship game before falling in penalty kicks to Indiana. The next year saw a Santa Barbara squad hampered by the loss of several seniors, and Iro was thrust into more of a leadership role in just his sophomore year.
“Andy’s gone from being the guy with the seniors around him to being the leader on the field, and it happened fairly quickly,” Vom Steeg said. “All those seniors graduated in ’04, so immediately, as a sophomore, Andy was one of the key guys in the program.”
While that year’s results were a little disappointing in comparison to the year before, finishing only second in the Big West, it allowed Iro to grow into the leader on the field he is now. During the 2006 season, Iro really started to dominate. Behind his smothering defense, the Gauchos made it back to the College Cup, and this time took home the trophy with a 2-1 victory over UCLA. In the championship game, no one was sure if Iro was going to be able to play. He had been playing for weeks on an injured knee, and the game was being played in the freezing cold, less than 24 hours after the semifinals had concluded.
“A lot of people didn’t think that he would be able to do that, including myself,” Vom Steeg said. “I think the fact that he went on to that field was an inspiration to all our players. Knowing Andy was going to go out there and go to war for us really urged the rest of the players on.”
The Gauchos ended up winning that game, in large part due to Iro’s stellar defense in the last 10 minutes, thwarting attack after attack by the Bruin strikers.
“He’s the type of defender that you wouldn’t want to play against if you were a forward,” sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien said. “He does it all.”
O’Brien, a transfer this year from the University of San Diego, had heard about Iro long before reaching Santa Barbara.
“I didn’t really know what to expect at first because he’s a big name,” O’Brien said. “When I first got here, you could tell right away that he was the guy that was in charge of all the players.”
Iro leads this squad with his energy on the field, but not with any arrogance or over-confidence so often seen among star athletes. He models himself after the European star Thierry Henri.
“[Henri] is rarely seen in the news,” Iro said. “There is never any press on him. He is really humble and just plays.”
According to Vom Steeg, Iro is “a quiet leader [who] leads through example, and people really look up to him and follow his lead.” Though he may be quiet off the field, on it he is the loudest player, barking orders out to the entire squad.
“He’s our heart, honestly,” junior midfielder and fellow All-American Eric Avila said. “I see him as a leader, as the backline of the team. He’s our voice. He’s the one that keeps us all going. At times, without Andy, it seems like we’re missing something. When he’s off the field, it all goes quiet. When he’s talking we all listen. We all look up to him.”
And so, as the Gauchos prepare for tonight’s second round playoff game against the University of Washington, it seems fair to expect that Iro will have a huge role in how UCSB concludes its season. After that, the Briton has no idea where his talent will take him.
“It’s totally up in the air right now. I’ll know in the next couple of weeks exactly what I want to do. It’s a big life decision,” Iro said.