December Desperation, soccer’s answer to March Madness, has come to Santa Barbara. Four teams that have survived a siege of heart-wrenching matches in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament will compete in the 2010 College Cup on UCSB’s Meredith Field at Harder Stadium.
On Friday, December 10, at 5:30 p.m., it’s top-ranked Louisville versus North Carolina. At 8 p.m., last year’s runner-up Akron will take on Michigan. The winners will take the field at 1 p.m. on Sunday and play for the championship.
If the matches are anything like last weekend’s quarterfinals, fans of the visiting teams will be chewing down their fingernails. But how did UCSB — which last hosted an NCAA championship event, men’s volleyball, in 1981 — become one of the few sites ever to pull the College Cup out of the East? It earned credibility on the field, by winning the Cup in 2006 at St. Louis, and in the stands. Santa Barbara set an NCAA attendance record in 2009 by averaging 4,335 fans per game, and this year the average jumped to 5,873 — boosted by an on-campus record of 15,896 that poured into Harder Stadium to see the Gauchos beat UCLA, 2-0, in September. The university recently put the final touches on almost $2 million in construction projects to improve the fan experience at the stadium.
Advance ticket sales exceeded 5,000 for this weekend, but prospects for a capacity crowd diminished when UCSB’s team was knocked out of contention in a controversy-marred 2-1 overtime defeat at Berkeley in the second round.
Akron coach Caleb Porter would like to inherit UCSB’s fans. The Gauchos and the Zips have a lot in common. “We used the Santa Barbara model to prove that a mid-major (no big-time football program) can be a force in soccer,” Porter said. Like UCSB, his team reflects the multicultural glory of soccer — and of America, for that matter — with several players of African and Caribbean extraction. “We have a lot of flair,” Porter said.
UCSB would have had to get through Akron to reach the College Cup. “Maybe the Gaucho Locos will adopt the Zips,” Porter said. “I’ll buy them all the tortillas they want if they come out and support us.”
Tim Deakyne, a Santa Barbara attorney, is an avid follower of the Gauchos and soccer in general. He and his wife, Jenny, had tortillas tossed at their wedding in Isla Vista, and they honeymooned at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. They bring their young children to the Gauchos’ home games. Deakyne said bitterness about the defeat at Cal should not dissuade people from attending the College Cup. “From a UCSB fan’s perspective, I want to see us host the College Cup again,” he said. “I want to see the Gauchos lift the trophy on their home field.”
A few peculiarities of college soccer rules don’t sit well with fans like Deakyne. Each half (45 minutes) is timed to the last second. In the rest of the sport, the time is kept on the field, and the final whistle never blows when a possible goal-scoring play is already in motion. Also, college soccer has unlimited substitutions, lessening the demands of stamina that players will face in the professional ranks — and many players on the field this weekend have aspirations to move up to that level. There’s one thing that’s true at every level of soccer: The referees, the lone arbiters on the field, have a tough job, and if they have a bad day, it can be painful for players, coaches, and fans.
“If you’re a sports nut, soccer is the ultimate sport to follow,” Deakyne said. “Every country has a league. Every country has a national team. There’s a big game somewhere every single week.”
For college fans, the ultimate games are in our backyard this weekend.
Seeded: 3rd. Record: 20-1-2.
How They Got Here: Defeated West Virginia, 3-2; Indiana, 2-1; and UC Berkeley, 3-3 (double overtime; won penalty-kick shootout, 3-2).
Leading Scorers: Darren Mattocks (freshman forward: 18 goals, 4 assists); Michael Nanchoff (junior midfielder: 10 goals, 8 assists); Darlington Nagbe (junior forward/midfielder: 7 goals, 13 assists).
Goalkeeper: David Meves (sophomore: 0.65 goals against average).