The summer sitcom Welcome to Sweden featured an American (played by Greg Poehler) who moves across the Atlantic to make a new life with his girlfriend. Among his adventures in culture shock, he had to endure a sweltering session in a sauna with a cluster of naked Swedish men.
On the soccer pitch at UCSB’s Harder Stadium last Friday night, there was a show that could have been titled Welcome to America, starring Ludwig Ahl, a 20-year-old freshman player from Stockholm, Sweden. He displayed some dazzling moves in his Gaucho home debut against Northwestern, but after going like the Energizer Bunny for 90 minutes, and being knocked down repeatedly by less-skillful opponents, Ahl was at the limit of his endurance. Then he found out there was more soccer to play.
“I’m not used to this overtime thing,” he said. “I thought the game was over.” The score was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, but the game was not finished until 20 minutes of overtime had been played, as dictated by NCAA rules, in the hopes that a winning goal would be scored. It didn’t happen, and the Gauchos, who dominated possession for most of the match, had to settle for a draw that leveled their record at 1-1-1.
With a plethora of youth on their roster — 10 freshmen and sophomores played in the Northwestern match — the Gauchos need time to mesh as a team. They opened their season in the sauna of the American South, scoring a 2-1 victory over the College of Charleston before wilting in a 3-0 defeat to Furman in South Carolina. “It took four days to get the fluids back into you after that ridiculous game,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said.
After hitting the road early this week (a Tuesday-night game at Stanford), the Gaucho men will play their next six matches in the friendly confines of Harder Stadium, where they have led the nation’s colleges in soccer attendance for seven consecutive seasons. The lineup: Colgate (Fri., Sept. 12, 7:30pm); No. 1–ranked UCLA (Sat., Sept. 20, 7pm); San Diego State (Fri., Sept. 26, 7pm); Drake (Sun., Sept. 28, 6pm); Cal State Northridge (Thu., Oct. 2, 7pm); and UC Irvine (Sat., Oct. 4, 7pm).
By October, Vom Steeg hopes to see a battle-tested team that has figured out how to convert the forays of flashy freshmen Ahl and Axel Mendez into goals. Both of them are living up to their reputations. Ahl had a chance to sign a first-division professional contract in Sweden, Vom Steeg said, but has committed to getting a college degree instead. Mendez starred both for the CIF champion Cathedral High team in Los Angeles and the L.A. Galaxy Academy, a developmental team affiliated with the Major League Soccer club.
Nick DePuy, showing nice footwork for a 6’4” midfielder, scored UCSB’s goal Friday on a solo effort in the first half. A deflected cross came to DePuy at the top of the 18-yard box, and after a hesitation that froze the defense, the sophomore from Irvine fired a left-footed shot that took one bounce past Northwestern’s All-Big Ten goalkeeper Tyler Miller. DePuy, who was primarily a defender last year, is torn by the experiment of being moved to the midfield.
“I love defending, and I love going forward,” DePuy said. He also loves what he’s seen of the new Gaucho players. “Ludwig is a very creative guy,” he said of Ahl. “He and Axel are very crafty on the ball. They know what they’re doing.”
Ahl weaved through Northwestern’s defense and served up two brilliant passes in the second half — “plattered” them, in Vom Steeg’s words — but no Gaucho was ready to put them away. The coach hopes to find a surefire finisher — somebody who, like a football receiver going across the middle, has the courage and instinct to get after balls in the heart of the penalty area. Candidates include senior forward Reed McKenna and junior Charlie Miller, both of whom scored in the opener, and sophomore Ismaila Jome, a returning All-Big West winger who was a superb set-up man last year and has the potential to be more of a goal-scorer. Perhaps Alex Liua or Denis Kalamar, a pair of freshman forwards who have yet to play significant minutes, will make an impact up front. “We haven’t been this deep, talent-wise, in at least four or five years,” Vom Steeg said. “They’re young but very good.”
Mendez squeezed off several shots from the perimeter Friday night, keeping the Northwestern defenders on their toes. Ahl made some runs in heavy traffic and dished no-look passes that were reminiscent of his idol, Lionel Messi, the mercurial Barcelona star. “I try to play like him,” Ahl said. “But I don’t think I’m going to be Messi. That’s why I need an education.”
The Swedish attacker is taking the opposite route of Ema Boateng, a Ghana native who had some sensational moments as a UCSB freshman but then departed to play professionally — in Sweden. “Ludwig worked really hard [to qualify for admission to UCSB],” Vom Steeg said. “Is he going to leave for a $40,000 MLS contract? No.”
As a player who was nurtured in European football, Ahl is finding the college game to be a different beast. It constantly moves at a frenzied pace because unlimited substitution brings in waves of fresh players. In other countries, only three subs are allowed in a match. “Foreign players are used to the game slowing down,” Vom Steeg said. The pace may pick up in the last five minutes of a match. “That five minutes goes on for 90 minutes in college soccer,” Vom Steeg said. “The speed is crazy.” Then there’s overtime. Ahl took a breather for the first 15 minutes of extra time against Northwestern.
UCSB’s other European-bred starter, Paul Ehmann, is adjusting to the rigors. The sophomore from Frankenthal, Germany, had problems with fatigue as a midfielder last year. He volunteered to play defense this season and is the only Gaucho, other than sophomore goalkeeper Josh McNeely, who played every minute of the first three matches.
“I had a little health problem over last half year,” Ehmann said. “Now I’m good to go. I worked hard over the summer to be in good shape when I got here.” He took the time to enjoy Germany’s triumph in the World Cup — most of it, anyway. “I couldn’t enjoy the win against Brazil [a 7-1 shellacking in the semifinals],” he said. “I felt sorry for Brazil, all the people in their country who were so excited. It was one of the craziest games in World Cup history. Germany has one of the best counter-attacking teams in the world, and Brazil kept going forward. You can’t do that against a team like Germany. We were happy after the final. Everybody was on the streets.”
He’d like to help bring some happiness to Gaucho soccer fans. In numbers, they are the most supportive in the country. All but five Gauchos on a roster of 29 are U.S. born, most from Southern California. The sprinkling of foreigners is a plus, Ehmann said. “UCSB has a good thing. Every country has its strengths. They bring all their different strengths here. Outside the field, it’s fun to be with people from different places and learn about their culture.”