In a season full of disappointment for the UCSB men’s soccer team, there was one major bright spot on the year: Nic Ryan.
“I thought Nic Ryan had a breakout season,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “He stepped up and was consistent. I thought he had as good a year as you could have in the conference.”
In his final year with UCSB, the senior posted a team high of eight goals. He tied for third in the Big West in points with 19 and ranked fourth in game-winning goals in the conference with four.
“He carried the team,” junior midfielder Fifi Baiden said. “No matter how many games you play, it all comes down to who scores and who wins the game. Losing our forwards, it was huge to have someone to score goals for us.”
Ryan seemed to come up with a goal whenever his team needed one. Against Cal Poly Oct. 19, he scored what may have been the most beautiful goal of the year for UCSB when he converted a diving header sent into the box from freshman midfielder Ema Boateng.
He even single-handedly kept the Gauchos in the game on multiple occasions. Most notably, he scored both of UCSB’s goals in a 2-1 decision against UC Irvine Oct. 5, the second goal coming in double overtime with 24 seconds remaining.
“Every goal he got was a key goal at a key moment,” Vom Steeg said. “You can’t ask for much more than what he gave us. I feel bad that we weren’t able to do enough to send [our seniors] off in a different away.”
Nevertheless, the San Jose native seemed to fly under the radar with the hype of the team centering on flashy players such as Boateng or senior midfielder Dion Acoff, who dazzled fans with their speed and footwork.
Yet, that’s not the type of player Ryan is; he’s a player who effectively gets the job done. He knows where to be on the field, and most importantly, how to finish in front of the goal.
“He understands the game really well and he knows where to be at the right time,” Baiden said. “It allowed him to get involved more and get himself in places that would score.”
Despite being a player who hasn’t received a ton of publicity or made people talk, Ryan was recognized in a big way when he received the Big West Midfielder of the Year award last week.
“It’s nice to get an award after a difficult season,” Ryan said. “It was definitely one of my goals to try to be the best midfielder out there and getting it felt like a [big] accomplishment. It’s definitely a big award, and I’m proud of it.”
One of two players to play in every game this year for UCSB, Ryan tallied five goals and two assists during Big West play en route to his first All-Big West honor of his career.
“In order to win that award, you have to play through the midfield, and we do that,” Vom Steeg said. “We ask them to be on the ball, and as a result, we allow them to really demonstrate what they can do. He seized the opportunity.”
Ryan keeps the Midfielder of the Year award in the family as he is the fourth consecutive Gaucho to win it. Danny Barrera took the honor in 2009-10 and Luis Silva won it last year.
In fact, playing behind players such as Barrera, Silva and Sam Garza in the first three years of his career might be the reason you had never really heard Ryan’s name before.
“I had really good players in front of me like Silva and Danny, so I had to let them do their thing,” Ryan said. “They had a lot of success. I knew I could have that role.”
This year, the team needed somebody to step up and take the role of that dominant midfielder. It was a role Ryan wanted and took into his own hands.
“It was definitely a change in mentality,” Ryan said. “I wanted to be that player to get the goal or the assist. This year, I felt like I was the guy — that one midfielder — that had to score for us to win.”
This year, Ryan took 26 shots, 11 more than he took in his first three years combined. His 19 points are also exceptionally greater than his contribution in the first three years when he tallied just five points, including two goals.
“He played with a lot of confidence this year,” Vom Steeg said. “That’s the most dramatic change from last year. Once we started to lose our forwards, he took it upon himself to score. I think there was a lot of leadership too. Even though he doesn’t scream and yell, he demanded the ball and stepped up his play in the bigger games.”
UCSB also made a tactical change, moving Ryan into a central midfield position this year. The position was better suited for Ryan than his original outside mid position and gave him more scoring opportunities.
“Before I got to UCSB, I always played attacking mid, so I was comfortable with that role,” Ryan said. “Usually on the outside, you concentrate on getting the cross off and since I was in the middle [this year], I was in the box and receiving the ball at the end of the cross.”
Now, Ryan’s season and career as a Gaucho are done. But like the great players who played at UCSB before him, there may be a spot for him at the pro level.
For Ryan, going pro has been a lifelong dream. He’s strived for this goal all his life, as his dad was a professional soccer player (a midfielder) for the San Jose Earthquakes. At UCSB, Ryan wore No. 14, just like his dad.
“[My dad’s] probably been the number one influence soccer-wise that I’ve had in my life,” Ryan said. “He brought me up with the game. He was always my coach until I went to UCSB. I [went] to his games and [grew] up with his soccer friends and [watched] soccer with him all the time. He took a lot of time out of his day to help me develop as a player, so I owe a lot to him.”
The next step for Ryan will be receiving an invitation to the MLS combine, where coaches will take a look at the college seniors. To get drafted, participating in this combine is a must.
“You would hope as the midfielder of the year he can get that invitation,” Vom Steeg said. “I definitely think he can play at the next level. He makes good decisions on the ball and he’s good around the net, so I think Nic can help a team at the next level; but it’s whether somebody can appreciate that, because he’s not a player that will make an incredible move and make people go ‘wow.’ Because of him, though, your team will play better.”
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of November 14th, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.