It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. Nobody is more acutely aware of that adage than the UCSB men’s soccer team. Last year, the Gauchos had a great start and a horrible finish. After making 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, they ended the 2012 season with nowhere to go.
Recap: The Gauchos were undefeated (8-0-3) in their first 11 games and ranked No. 3 in the nation. The rest of the way, they went 2-6, including three straight sudden-death overtime losses at home to Cal Poly, Stanford, and UC Davis.
“In two weekends, the whole season slipped away,” Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg recalled. “I think there are a lot of things to learn from that. At the top of the list is staying together, staying committed as a team. Even if you’re winning, it sometimes hides other things that are going on. It doesn’t mean you’re playing for each other. Even though we were highly ranked, we had some things going on internally that were brought to the forefront when we started losing our key guys to injuries. We ended the season with seven starters not playing. It’s always part of the game, but when you lose seven, you have to be really strong. Our team wasn’t strong enough.”
The returning Gauchos say they are ready to deal with the highs and lows that inevitably occur in a season of soccer, where every match tries men’s souls. The last image of 2012 at Harder Stadium — UCSB senior Peter McGlynn being escorted off the field by police after giving the referee a push in frustration — is one they never want to repeat.
“This year the theme is teamwork,” senior midfielder Fifi Baiden said. “Last year we had a lot of individual stuff going on. This year it’s doing things as a team, whatever happens — we win as a team, we lose as a team.”
Daniel Welsh spoke to the same theme. “This year we’re more of a team, and we’re more hungry,” the senior defender said. “We’ve learned from what happened last year. There’s going to be some downs in the season. Just deal with them in the right way. Stay positive, and fight through them together as a team.”
The Gauchos have a chance to do just that in the coming month after losing their first regular-season home match to Gonzaga last Friday, 2-0. It might prove to be a good thing, if they surmount the shortcomings that were exposed. It brought them back to earth after their successful road trip that resulted in a pair of wins over Northwestern (3-1) and Illinois-Chicago (1-0).
UCSB will have to get better in a hurry to compete in its next match against UCLA on Friday, September 13, at Westwood.
Following that matchup, Meredith Field at Harder Stadium — which the university promotes as “Soccer Heaven” — will be one of the busiest pitches in the world. The Gauchos will play seven home games in a three-week span: Pennsylvania (Sept. 15), Yale (Sept. 20), New Mexico (Sept. 23), Stanford (Sept. 27), Loyola Marymount (Sept. 29), Cal State Fullerton (Oct. 4), and UC Riverside (Oct. 6).
It would behoove the Gauchos to put forth a more polished effort than they showed against Gonzaga. Their supportive fans deserve it. Attendance exceeded 3,000 at both the Gonzaga match and an exhibition against Westmont College. UCSB led the NCAA in home attendance for the sixth consecutive year in 2012 with an average of 5,543 per match. Students will boost this year’s numbers after they arrive for the fall quarter.
Gonzaga’s Bulldogs were the underdogs in last Friday’s match, but like many visiting teams who get to play in front of the biggest crowds they’ll see all season, they played with energy and determination. “We have a great deal of respect for UCSB’s program,” Zags coach Einar Thorarinsson said. “Our plan was to pressure them all over the field.”
The Gauchos appeared flummoxed by the pressure and failed to produce a coherent attack. Goffin Boyoko, who scored three goals in Chicago, did not take a shot. Featured striker Achille Campion had five attempts, including a header that drifted just wide with 10 minutes remaining. The score was 1-0 at the time, but Gonzaga shortly made it 2-0 against a defense made vulnerable by UCSB’s late attack mode. It did not help the Gauchos that the excitable Vom Steeg, who had been ejected by the referee at the Illinois-Chicago match, could not be with the team on the sideline Friday.
“The quality of our finishes is not there yet,” said Campion, a senior from Paris, France, whose ankle injury last year was a blow to the Gauchos. “We’re not getting clean shots. It takes time. We’re working on it.”
The Gauchos showed their potential in the Westmont exhibition. In the fourth minute, Campion brought down a shower of tortillas — the fans’ traditional celebration of a goal — when he scored on a ball that never touched the ground after a free kick by freshman Drew Murphy. It went to the head of Nick DePuy, another freshman, and then to Campion’s head. In the second half, UCSB put seven of its eight shots directly at the goal. Two of them went past Westmont’s solid goalkeeper Josh Glover — a 20-yard blast by Paul Ehmann, a new recruit from Germany, and a point-blank finish by Andy Perez.
Until a few months ago, the Gauchos expected to open the season with the stellar Ema Boateng, a freshman All-American last year. Boateng chose to turn pro, signing a multi-year contract with the Swedish club Helsingborg. Though disappointed, the Gauchos did not hold it against Boateng, whose family in Ghana could use the money. Vom Steeg did point out that UCSB players who’ve stayed in school four years — such as Dan Kennedy, Andy Iro, Chris Pontius, and Luis Silva — have all succeeded in Major League Soccer.
“Chris Pontius was very good his junior year, but nothing like his senior year,” Vom Steeg said. “Silva went from very good as a junior to one of the best players in the nation. The players who leave early, it’s their opportunity, their dream, a chance to play pro, but the reality is you flip a coin a little bit when you leave early. Hopefully it works out well for Ema.”
Vom Steeg said the prestige of UCSB soccer, a national champion in 2006, is a contributing factor. “We’re our worst enemy,” he said.” I don’t think there’s a program that has the exposure and visibility we do from a national standpoint. Our players get picked up because they play in an environment that looks like a professional environment. The way we play is a professional way of playing. You play in these big games, you become very attractive.”
GLUE GUYS: The Gaucho baseball program is getting great exposure from former players Skip Schumaker and Michael Young, both in the L.A. Dodgers’ starting lineup last week. The Dodgers picked up Young from the Phillies at the trading deadline. Bob Brontsema, who coached the pair at UCSB, described them as “glue guys” — solid players who hustle and do little things well. Others on the roster are Nick Punto and Mark Ellis. If the Dodgers return to the World Series, don’t forget the glue guys.