In what head coach Tim Vom Steeg has called the most talented team he has ever had, Dion Acoff is an important piece. Not even a year ago, though, he was the enemy.

“It’s different [going from enemy to teammate],” Acoff said. “It’s a good challenge for me to get a different feel. There are different rituals and a different game plan.”

The senior midfielder played his first three years of soccer for Creighton, where he collected many accolades, including Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2009 and MVC first team in 2010 after leading the league in assists with 10. That year, he was also ranked 11th in the nation in assists per game.

As a Bluejay, the Upland, California native encountered UCSB twice, once in a regular season match in 2010 and last year in the third round of the NCAA playoffs.

In that playoff game, Creighton beat Santa Barbara 2-1, ending UCSB’s season. For the Gauchos, it was a game that left a very bitter taste in their mouths.

“That game definitely took away our goal of getting to the Final Four and it really hurt us,” junior midfielder Fifi Baiden said. “It’s something that we had been working towards and when we went to Creighton; we were confident we were going to win there.”

While Acoff was not the leading attacking force for Creighton, he was definitely a player on the scouting report.

“[Acoff is] a player that stands out when he plays,” senior midfielder Nic Ryan said. “He can beat people pretty easily and he did that to us when we played Creighton.”

With Acoff’s help, the Bluejays earned a 21-2-1 overall record last season, including 14-0 at home, which culminated in a spot in the 2011 NCAA Men’s College Cup.

“It was exciting,” Acoff said. “It’s where every Division I college player wants to be. It was fun being escorted to the games by police and being on ESPN … we were the focus of college soccer. Hopefully we can get there this year.”

At the time of the playoff match, Acoff had no idea that the opponent, UCSB, would soon be his home. However, after Creighton decided not to renew his scholarship, possibly due to a coaching change, Acoff knew he needed to move forward in a different direction. Acoff sent letters to three schools in California, looking to transfer.

“[Creighton] told me that they wanted to me stay, but when I looked at my options, it was between UCLA and Santa Barbara,” Acoff said. “I was used to seeing Santa Barbara because we played here my sophomore year and I knew how they went forward, and I liked how they played.”

Due to transfer rules, which say that a team cannot contact a player until he announces his will to transfer, the Gauchos had no idea Acoff was looking for a new team. But when the letter arrived, UCSB quickly pounced on the opportunity.

“Santa Barbara was the first to call me — like within an hour of the letter going out,” Acoff said.

With only one year left and heading to a new school, Acoff had to adjust quickly, which meant learning a completely new style of play.

“Besides Creighton being very defensive and UCSB going forward more, I’d say UCSB is more of a professional team,” Acoff said. “We combine passes, whereas with Creighton you would make 30-yard passes.”

As an attacking midfielder, he quickly found the style of play was a better suit for him.

“It’s still hard making the transfer … but it’s easier for me in the sense that I get the ball and I can do whatever [I] want,” Acoff said. “There’s no set plays like at Creighton. With UCSB, it’s use your own creativity and get the goal. It makes the game more enjoyable and fun for me in my position.”

UCSB was also in desperate need of a player like Acoff, since the Gauchos lost several key offensive players to the MLS last season, including offensive weapons Luis Silva and Sam Garza.

“Dion was the kind of player we were looking for because Garza decided to not come back, so that opened up a spot in a real position of need for us,” Vom Steeg said.

Acoff has started 10 out of the 12 games for UCSB, bringing a new set of strengths to the position. Having run track in high school, Acoff is best known for his speed.

“He’s been really effective in bringing a lot of speed and then providing a lot of wide service for us,” Baiden said. “He’s been really good at beating his man, no matter who he’s playing against. He provides the outlet for us on the wings.”

Acoff also has a knack for ball control, knowing how to play with the ball at his feet.

“He doesn’t look to dribble you in terms of step overs … he knows what he has and that’s his ability to start and stop,” Vom Steeg said. “He creates gaps and openings as a result and can split defenders. He has a clear idea in his mind of what he wants to do. Some players never get it, in what they’re trying to do, but he has it.”

So far this season, Acoff has tallied one goal and three assists. However, his presence is felt beyond the box scores, forcing opposing teams to spread their defense.

“You always need to have players that can change games, that are playmakers,” Vom Steeg said. “He is definitely a playmaker because he can pick up a ball and run by them. It opens up other players.”

Finally, what Acoff brings to the table that nobody else on the Gaucho squad can is Final Four experience.

“Whatever game we play, it’s like a training game for him because he went so far with his team last year,” Baiden said. “He has the confidence and he shows us that all you need to play any team is confidence. Before the UCLA game, new players and freshmen were nervous because it was a TV game and he was like, ‘it’s just a game.’”

With the Gauchos having lost three of their last four games and sitting in last in the North Division, UCSB is certainly going to need Acoff’s experience and leadership.