The UCSB men’s soccer team will begin postseason play on Wednesday, November 28, with one goal: repeating as NCAA champions. Yet somewhere in the back of the players’ and coaches’ minds will be the memories of the team’s summer training trip to Argentina, the home of the original gaucho, a cowboy of the South American plains.
One year ago, the UCSB Gauchos defeated UCLA 2-1 amid a St. Louis snowstorm to win their first NCAA Championship. The title was only the university’s second overall (men’s water polo, 1979), and perhaps the greatest single triumph in Gaucho athletics history. UCLA had entered the match seeking its 100th NCAA Championship.
In June, the Gauchos traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept congratulations from President George W. Bush at the annual Champions’ Day at the White House. Two weeks later, they were in Argentina, where no one has ever heard of NCAA Division I athletics, or can imagine why an American university would ever call itself the Gauchos. The Gauchos’ time in Argentina would present them with new sources of adversity and provide them with a sense of perspective that championship teams must develop if they are to have any hope of repeating.
Housed in a training facility in Moreno, 45 minutes outside Buenos Aires, head coach Tim Vom Steeg ‘s players faced challenges rarely seen in the high-dollar world of top-level American sports, including dirt fields and equipment shortages.
“The trip opened our eyes to the costs that other players go through for the opportunity that most of our players take for granted,” Vom Steeg recalled. “It also brought the team closer, something that was necessary to deal with the adversities that we have faced this year.”
When a power outage left the training complex without heating during the dead of the coldest Argentine winter in years, a few of the Southern California Gauchos were clamoring for the team bus to drive them to a suitable hotel. There were also the usual amount of stomach troubles and illness to be expected from a 25-person trip to a new country in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter.
“It was definitely hard at times,” junior midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan acknowledged, “but in the end it was a rewarding experience. Being there, watching out for each other, taking care of the guys that got sick, I really feel like we connected as a team and are prepared for what is going to be a very challenging postseason as defending champions.”
Despite the predictable inconveniences, the Gauchos took the field for six games against local competition, posting an impressive 4-1-1 record. Their opponents ranged from youth and lower-division teams run by revered Argentine clubs such as River Plate, to a patchwork squad of former professional players seeking contracts. The differences in style and tradition between the Argentine and American players were readily apparent.
In two-time national coach of the year Vom Steeg’s assessment, “We never saw a ‘bad’ player. Every player we saw was a tremendous competitor. The passion and commitment of the teams we played against was very evident.”
In their first game off the plane, the Gauchos enjoyed countless scoring opportunities against a youth team from first division Banfield. Nevetherless, weary from the journey and still adjusting to the new environment, UCSB was unable to capitalize. Banfield, on the other hand, with only three good scoring chances, blasted three shots and won 3-0. UCSB learned quickly that the considerable financial and size advantages it held over its Argentine competition meant little on the South American pitch.
“We went out there in $150 adidas suits, we had four guys with us who were 6’3″ or taller, and when we were warming up, I could see that Banfield was just in awe,” said Von Steeg. “But once the game started…”
UCSB also appreciated the technical aspects of the Argentine game that remained constant, regardless of the opponent, throughout the team’s tour. “The Argentine players always looked to shoot. They always played the simple pass,” Vom Steeg recalled. “They always went after the ball by first making contact with the player and then the ball, and this is something we’ve tried to make part of our game.”
Argentine referees were impressed with the Gauchos’ NCAA Championship claims. In the team’s clash with River Plate reserves and U-20 players at the 65,000-seat Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, UCSB’s potential game-winning goal was disallowed on account of time – with a full five minutes remaining in the 90-minute contest. Vom Steeg refused to allow his players to be surprised by their misfortune. After all, it was the final game of their Argentine tour, and River’s first goal had come from a player who was “so offsides it was ridiculous.” Nothing comes easy in the follow-up to a championship season, and especially not on a soccer-crazed continent where no one has even heard of UCSB.
In addition to the invaluable soccer education they received, the student-athletes returned to Santa Barbara with firsthand experience of life in the country where the gaucho is a celebrated cultural icon. The team’s bus trips into Buenos Aires carried them past the villas (shantytowns) ringing the capital city. The poverty was more than any of the Gauchos expected to encounter.
This glimpse of the developing world was particularly unexpected for those players who had never left the United States and had to apply for their first passports in order to make the trip. Even the European-born and worldly Nick Perera, last year’s College Cup Most Outstanding Offensive Player, was taken aback.
“It was a very humbling experience,” said the UCSB junior. “Now that we’re back in Santa Barbara, we realize how privileged we all are.”
Perera and a handful of bilingual Gaucho players helped the team communicate with the locals in their day-to-day activities and outings to places like Locos por F°tbol, a South American restaurant chain famous for showing big soccer games on giant screens. There the Gauchos watched not only the U.S. and Argentina Copa America games, but also got their first look at current teammate Michael Boxall playing for New Zealand in the Under-20 world championship.
By the end of their 10-day trip, the UCSB players and coaches had not only learned a little about what soccer means to South Americans, they also developed an unflinching acceptance and appreciation of the unexpected. On July 9, 2007, snow fell in and around Buenos Aires for the first time in 89 years. Even back-to-back NCAA championships by a team that had never previously won one would have seemed more unlikely.
Catch the UCSB Gauchos take on the University of Washington match this Wednesday, November 28, at UCSB’s Harder Stadium. Call 893-UCSB for tickets. And for another report on the Argentina trip, go here.
Santa Barbara native, former UCSB employee, and frequent Independent contributor Paul Rivas has lived in Argentina for the better part of three years.