UCSB midfielder Ciaran O'Brien fights for the ball in last Saturday's exhibition game against Westmont College.
Tony Mastres ©UCSB Photographic Services

UCSB’s defending national soccer champions unveiled their version of David Beckham last Saturday night. Early in their exhibition game against Westmont College, the Gauchos were awarded a free kick about 25 yards out from the goal. Sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien stepped forward and swung his foot into the ball.

“He hits the best free kick we’ve ever had,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg had said a day earlier while assessing O’Brien’s impact on the team. “I haven’t coached a player as complete as he is.”

O’Brien may not have fully lived up to those praises in his Gaucho debut, but he came close. His first free kick swerved over the wall of defenders and was headed into the upper right corner of the goal, but Westmont goalkeeper Justin Etherton leaped and parried it away.

That play may go down as a prophetic moment for both teams. UCSB appears to be more potent offensively than the team that eked out a series of close wins in last year’s NCAA playoffs. The Gauchos drilled 20 shots Saturday, 15 of them honing in on the goal. But they won by just a 2-0 score, which was greatly encouraging to Westmont. Etherton’s 13 saves were the second most in school history.

“I feel pleased and thankful that we survived,” Dave Wolf said. The Westmont coach even expressed appreciation of the “funny stuff” emanating from UCSB’s raucous cheering section. “Soccer in this country does not have enough of that,” he said.

Wolf’s Warriors will begin their slate of NAIA games this weekend. They will start with a mini tournament at Russ Carr Field, facing Dominican at 3 p.m. on Friday, August 31, and facing Northwestern of Iowa at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The Gauchos will officially open their season on Friday night at Stanford. Their home opener will follow at 2 p.m. Sunday, September 2, against Gonzaga.

A crowd of 1,690 turned out at Harder Stadium for the exhibition game, which was preceded by the awarding of NCAA championship rings to members of the 2006 Gaucho team. The festive atmosphere was just what O’Brien wanted when he chose Santa Barbara after deciding to transfer from the University of San Diego.

“I attended their NCAA Elite Eight game against Northwestern [when there were 8,784 in attendance],” O’Brien said. “That’s persuasion. I came here because of the environment, the facilities, the coaches, and the players.”

O’Brien, the 2005 prep player of the year in Washington, wants to follow in the footsteps of his father Fran, an Irish-born soccer professional, and his older brother Leighton. UCSB has sent a host of players to the pros, including last year’s goalie Kyle Reynish and forward Bryan Byrne, who signed MLS contracts.

Junior midfielder Eric Avila considered going pro, but he decided to return along with five other starters. With a platoon of seasoned reserves and an infusion of new talent, Vom Steeg said the Gauchos have their strongest, deepest squad ever. They are ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll.

“Three years ago, we felt this year would be our best chance to win a national championship,” Vom Steeg said. “We won it a year early.”

Senior co-captains Andy Iro and Greg Curry anchor a defense that allowed Westmont only one shot on goal, leaving freshman keeper Bryant Rueckner as busy as the proverbial Maytag repairman. Freshman defender Michael Boxall of New Zealand hammered a goal in the first half when Greg Curry’s brother, Jon, had his shot fumbled by Etherton. “He made a mistake, and they punished us,” Wolf said. Andrew Proctor scored UCSB’s other goal on a 15-yard blast in the second half. The ball was centered by Avila, who had received a pinpoint pass in the corner from O’Brien.

So it was a good start for the Gauchos, but unlike last year’s team, which was unranked when it began its stunning title run, they will not sneak up on any opponents this season.

“Westmont came at us really hard. Their goalie shocked us,” Avila said. “Imagine how tough it’s going to be against Stanford and all the other Division I teams.”

See the schedule here.


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