The UCSB men’s soccer team has a lot of talent to go around. It just lacks a lot of experience. This is the trade-off that Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg will have to deal with in his 10th year at the helm. As one would expect from such a team, it’s been an inconsistent early season.
The Gauchos are currently 3-2, riding a two-game losing streak from this weekend’s travels to the East Coast. After defeating Air Force, Kentucky and Loyola Marymount University, and reaching a #6 ranking nationally, Santa Barbara faltered against two seemingly overmatched teams, losing 3-2 to Rutgers and 3-1 to Columbia. The losses were UCSB’s first of the season, and came as a surprise to an otherwise confident squad.
“We have an exceptionally talented group of players,” Vom Steeg said Tuesday, still feeling the sting of the weekend’s defeats. “But we have sixteen new players and we just need to be patient… Juniors and seniors know how to finish a game, that’s what experience does for you and we just don’t have that luxury.”
The losses follow a pattern that has emerged in this young season of UCSB: out-shooting their opponents but only putting in a few goals. In Sunday’s loss to Columbia the Gauchos actually out-shot the Lions 22-7, but lost 3-1.
“Talented teams get 20 or more shots,” Vom Steeg said. “Teams that are on the same page score goals.”
Potential seems to be the name of the game for UCSB. The squad features what Vom Steeg calls “his best recruiting class ever, by far,” as well as some talented upperclassmen, so one would expect another very successful season. The main question facing the Gauchos is whether or not they can utilize all their talent fully and maintain national prominence.
“We haven’t truly come together yet,” senior forward Nick Perera said. “I know this group has a side no one has seen yet.”
There were flashes of that side in Santa Barbara’s 4-0 drubbing of Westmont in an exhibition match, but against stronger opponents the Gauchos have been a bit disconnected. Defensive breakdowns have plagued UCSB so far, and the offense has yet to completely click.
The defense is easy to explain. It was a major preseason question mark after Andy Iro and Greg Curry graduated, and when last year’s starting keeper Bryant Rueckner left school, things became even more complicated. Then experienced defenders Kyle Kaveny and CJ Cintas went down with leg injuries before the season started, and the situation went from dangerous to catastrophic. With a freshman goalie in Trond Helge Takset and two freshman defensemen in Michael Tetteh and Peter McGlynn, the defense is anchored by sophomore Michael Boxall, and even he has less than a full season under his belt. How well the Gaucho back line gels might decide this team’s success in the coming season.
The offense is more confusing. For an attacking corps that features Hermann Trophy candidate Chris Pontius, lauded recruit Bryan Dominguez, and veterans Nick Perera, David Walker and Bongomin Otii, one would expect a lot more production. But so far it has been all Pontius, who has three goals and one assist in his first five games. UCSB is getting a lot of pressure, with at least 15 shots in every game so far. They have even eclipsed the 20-shot mark three times already. But scoring nine times in 107 shots is far from where this offense wants, or needs, to be.
“I think it’s scary how good we can be,” Vom Steeg said. “Until we get five goals in a game, we’re not there.”
Hopefully this squad will get there soon, as the going gets tough very quickly. UCSB’s upcoming schedule features three perennial powers in defending champion Wake Forest, UCLA and Indiana. There seems to be a consensus that the Gauchos have the talent to win all three of those games, and even every game from there on out. But as this last weekend showed, anything is possible.
Says Vom Steeg: “Rutgers took their shirts off and celebrated like they had just won a championship. We’re in such a spotlight that we can’t take any days off.”
Opposing teams will be gunning for the Gauchos every game. How they fare depends largely on the maturation of this UCSB team. The capability to do great things is there, but only time will tell whether or not that promise is fulfilled.
Perera’s views mirror the general feeling about this Santa Barbara squad. “All that I can ask for is that we fulfill our potential.” If they do, fans may be in for quite a ride.