Attend any UC Santa Barbara men’s soccer game, and the name you will hear the most is Leroy Zeller. His name is chanted at nearly every game, fans ask for pictures after and strikers fear him. Zeller, a third-year global studies major who won Co-Goalkeeper of the Year for the Big West Conference in the 2022-23 season took the Gauchos to a conference final.
Growing up in Sinzenich, Germany, Zeller began his soccer career at only four years old as an outfield player. According to Zeller, he tried his hand at goalkeeping at 12 years old, and it stuck. Viktoria Köln, a nearby 3rd division soccer club, took notice of his abilities, and recruited him to play for their under-17s (u17) side.
At 16, Zeller sought to advance his career more rapidly, so he moved out of his childhood home to play for a new club called Greuther Fürth, a second division side in the south of Germany who offered him a chance to play u19 soccer. Zeller said that after successful performances for the club’s second team, he began to train with the first team, but his appendix burst after a couple strong months training at the higher level.
After being sidelined due to his hospital stay and recovery period, he was not offered a new contract due to the extent of time he spent off the field. During this time, Zeller said that the German soccer transfer window closed, so he decided to set his sights abroad. He began training with Barnsley F.C., a club in England’s second division, but after a couple months, Zeller felt a better opportunity lay overseas in America.
Zeller felt that he had better opportunities in America because he was able to be a student and an athlete. In Europe, it is common for soccer players to focus solely on their athletic careers. According to Zeller, Europe’s lack of a fail-safe for young soccer players led him to consider American college soccer. As a European athlete, Zeller really appreciated how “you can study, get your major, do something productive” and still be able to pursue soccer.
In 2019, Zeller moved to South Carolina to play Division II soccer for Newberry College on a full ride scholarship. Coming in, he had plans of transferring to a Division I program after his first year, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the next fall soccer season was canceled and his plans were stunted.
When sports were able to resume during the 2020-21 school year, it was football season, and Zeller was interested.
“I was always fascinated by the sport and the athletes playing in the NFL. I am always looking forward to learning new things and facing challenges,” Zeller said.
Zeller was good friends with a few of the starting football players at Newberry. His friends trained Zeller to be a wide receiver in just a few months. The head football coach took notice of his skills, and invited him to train with the team. He completed a full pre-season with the team, and at the end of pre-season he was offered a full-ride scholarship to play football.
With two full-ride scholarships on the table for both soccer and football, he began to weigh his future in the two sports. Zeller was leaning towards football, but sent out emails to soccer coaches across the nation, in accordance with the original plan he came to Newberry College with. If the right offer came, he would take it. A day later, UCSB replied expressing interest, and Zeller said he “directly went to UCSB, and everything else is history from there.”
When asked “why UCSB?” he responded, “The program, the program, the program.”
Zeller said he admires the soccer history, the location and the lack of American football at UCSB.
“Soccer is the biggest thing here,” he said. Soccer being central to UCSB was crucial to Zeller, and soon Zeller too became crucial to UCSB soccer.
During the 2021-22 season and Zeller’s first season with the Gauchos, he had an 80.4% save rate for every game he played. Zeller’s save percentage is higher than UCSB’s last seven seasons of starting goalkeepers.
Zeller’s statistics took the Gauchos to a conference championship during the 2021-2022, He, however, fell short of taking home the coveted Big West Goalkeeper of the year award as it went to UC Irvine’s Gordon Botterill. Botterill’s win motivated Zeller.
“What I did good last year, I improved, and what I didn’t do well last year, I worked really hard on,” he said.
The goals he set for himself were reflected in his play time. Zeller achieved a 78.8% save percentage and only conceded 1 goal per game on average across the 20 games he played. His identical pre-playoff numbers were enough to warrant him winning co-goalkeeper of the Year of the Big West.
Zeller attributed his success to his goalkeeper coach, David Elias.
“Goalkeeper to goalkeeper coach connection is really important in soccer, because that’s the guy you work with every day. He’s the guy who follows you into games and has your back when something is not going well,” Zeller said.
Zeller also said that his pre-game ritual helped improve his performance. Before every game, Zeller makes a goal to not concede a goal, also known as a clean sheet .
Before the match he writes down, “Clean sheet, what do I need to get a clean sheet? Be big in the box, have clean build-up, and communicate well.” Zeller writes tips and other similar points on a notecard before taping it to his right shin guard and stepping out onto the field.
Zeller finished the 2022-23 season leading the league with seven clean sheets.
Zeller said he approaches the game without fear.
“I don’t get nervous. I like confrontation,” he said. “I am always looking forward to testing myself, every game. If you get nervous, it [weakens] you, you get stuck … I get excited. I love the environment.”
He loves the energy and excitement of the fans and appreciates those who come out to support UCSB soccer.
“We love to get the fans hyped, we love when you guys are out there and cheer us on, that’s the whole purpose. When you have a good time, we have a good time,” Zeller said. “The Cal Poly game is packed, and I would love to see that crowd attendance across every game. That would be class.”
Despite all of the effort, mental fortitude and individual achievements, UCSB men’s soccer lost in the conference final to UC Riverside by a score of 1-0.
However, Zeller said he was not discouraged by the defeat.
“After the game was done, all the fans, like 3000 to 4000, came at me and were yelling and screaming, but that motivates me now to go into this next season and show them who we are, who UCSB is and that this won’t happen again,” he said.
According to Zeller, the upcoming 2023-24 season will be his final college season, and he has aspirations to play professionally.
“If there is a team coming up who would like to draft me … I would love to stay here [in the U.S.]. If there is an opportunity to go to the first league, MLS, or [second league] Championship, I would go,” he said.
He would also welcome a return to Europe, saying “If there is an option coming up from England, Germany or in Europe for a league, I would definitely go then.” His dream would be to sign for Liverpool F.C., and play under their manager Jürgen Klopp, whom he met and spoke with in his youth back in Germany.
Zeller wishes to thank all of the Gaucho soccer supporters this past season, and he is looking forward to the next season.
“Thank you for coming to the games, being part of it, being part of the journey of UCSB soccer, and I hope this upcoming season we will have a great run in the tournament,” he said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 8 and p. 9 of the Mar. 9, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.