The Santa Barbara Soccer Club’s Under-17 boys had never played before such a large hometown crowd. But all the fans weren’t pulling for them — many came to see their opponent, Mexico’s national U-17 team. Santa Barbara did indeed go down to defeat, but gloriously so. Mexico needed two late goals to pull out a 3-2 victory last Sunday in a friendly match at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Stadium.
Mexico is preparing for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will start October 17 in Chile. It will be considered one of the favorites after winning the CONCACAF championship — the U.S. national team finished third — earlier this year. In the last two World Cups, the Mexican youths won the title (2011) and finished runners-up (2013).
Santa Barbara’s boys achieved a national reputation over the past four years, reaching the final four of every U.S youth championship from age 14-17 and winning two titles. But taking on an international power seemed to be overly ambitious. Mexico’s current tour includes two college opponents, UCLA and Cal State Fullerton, and also a Thursday-night (August 20) match against an older team, the Ventura County Fusion.
“To be honest, I was surprised to hear we were going to play Mexico,” said Santa Barbara defender Carson Vom Steeg, a high school junior. “We’re honored to play them.”
The hometown kids, including players from Ventura and Santa Ynez, showed their respect by leading the visitors twice during the match. Lucky Puengrod’s strike gave them a 1-0 halftime lead, and Brandon Sanchez put them ahead 2-1 on a breakaway midway through the second half. The match turned in the last minute of regulation time, when Mexico was awarded a free kick 20 yards out from the goal, and Kevin Magana deftly put it over the wall and out of goalkeeper Lalo Delgado’s reach. Two minutes later, in extra time, Nahum Gomez unleashed the winning shot and set off chants of “Meh-hee-co, Meh-hee-co.”
“We played about as well as we could,” Santa Barbara coach Rudy Ybarra said. “We’re usually the team that has ball control, but Mexico could play the ball so quickly, we had to be on defense most of the time. You’re going to see some of their players in World Cups and on European teams.”
Mexican coach Mario Arteaga sent out a different team in each half, while Santa Barbara had only a few substitutes. “Fatigue was a factor,” Ybarra said. “We were up against fresh legs in the second half.” For his part, Arteaga was impressed by the Santa Barbara effort, complimenting Ybarra on the intelligent approach of his team’s game.
COLLEGE SOCCER: UCSB’s men host their annual exhibition match against Westmont College at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 22. On Friday, August 28, Stanford will face the Gauchos at Harder Stadium.
Coach Tim Vom Steeg, whose 2006 UCSB team won the NCAA championship with a seasoned roster — comprising a mix of players from home and abroad — said he’s altering his approach after failing to retain a number of highly skilled players in recent years.
“The world has completely changed,” Vom Steeg said, noting that young players are taking advantage of abundant opportunities to join professional clubs. Even if those opportunities are at a lower level, they may seem preferable to the rigors of the college game. Out of 10 freshmen who came to play for the Gauchos the past two years, only three are still on the team.
Ludwig Ahl, one of last year’s recruits, returned to his native Sweden to play for a third-level pro club. “Ludwig thought it would be cool to play in the U.S.,” Vom Steeg said. “But you need more than [a desire for] a ‘neat experience’ to get through the grind. International players aren’t used to playing two or three games a week and getting beat up.”
There also are academic requirements. “I can think of five classes at UCSB that aren’t difficult,” Vom Steeg said. “When you get to final exams in December after a hard season of soccer, Sweden starts to look better.”
The Gauchos still want players with pro potential, as long as they can resist immediate — and often short-lived — gratification. “The players we’ve added are excited about being at UCSB,” Vom Steeg said. “If they’re thinking about the pros, that mentality is hard to coach. …You’re better off with those players leaving rather than just floating around.”
Nick DePuy, a 6’4” junior from Irvine, will be a focus of UCSB’s offense. He was moved from midfield to forward in the last 10 games of 2014, and he proceeded to score 10 goals. Michigan transfer Ahinga Selemani, a native of Canada, has come in as a sophomore with explosive talent. Vom Steeg said UCSB’s possible combinations up front constitute “the best attacking group of players we’ve had.”
Westmont will send out a largely homegrown lineup Saturday, including senior midfielders Muhammad Mehai from Carpinteria and Tanner Wolf from Santa Barbara. Coach David Wolf, Tanner’s father, said former Dos Pueblos High star Tim Heiduk is being brought along slowly after an arduous year, including his last summer with the S.B. Soccer Club U-17s. Heiduk missed the Mexico match to train with the Warriors.
Vom Steeg also will be coaching a son this season, UCSB’s freshman goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg. Both he and his younger brother Carson have been high-achieving youth players for Real So Cal, a prestigious club. Carson was called up to the U.S. U-18 national team this summer and was named captain during a tournament in Sweden. He rejoined the S.B. Soccer Club, for which he played in the U-15 championship season, to fortify the defense against Mexico.
In a version of their dad’s dilemma at UCSB, the Vom Steeg boys’ choice to play club soccer prevented them from taking the field for their high school, San Marcos. But at least they’ve been going to school. “I don’t feel sorry for San Marcos,” said the school’s athletic director, Abe Jahadhmy. “I feel those kids are missing out by not being part of high school sports.”
Talented athletes must negotiate a full slate of pluses and minuses in this world of opportunity.