A pair of freshmen and a pair of Frenchmen have seriously inflated UCSB’s hopes for a successful men’s soccer season. The Gauchos are not downplaying their expectations about how far they can go: all the way to the College Cup, the NCAA semifinals and final that will be played at UCSB’s Harder Stadium on December 7 and 9.
“We know the ultimate goal this season,” said Ben Roach, who started the season as UCSB’s No. 1 goalkeeper just months after graduating from Santa Barbara High. “Playing for the College Cup at home would be unreal. [The coaches] keep that in our minds. They want us to know what the ultimate goal is.”
Roach attended the College Cup at Harder Stadium in 2010, when the participants were Akron, Louisville, North Carolina, and Michigan. “That was definitely a cool experience,” he said. “The level of soccer being played was fun to watch. We definitely have the team to do it this year. We brought in a couple big-time transfers.”
Faouzi Taieb and Thibault Candia came to Santa Barbara from France by way of two East Coast colleges: Taieb, a strong 6′3″ defender, from St. Francis (NY) and Candia, a nimble 5′9″ midfielder, from Temple University. Both are juniors.
“It was like a movie coming here,” Candia said. “California is a dream.” But Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg had to convince him that the quality of soccer would be high. “He told me most of the team was returning,” Candia said. “There is good chemistry.”
Taieb also appreciates his new surroundings. “It looks like my city in France,” said the native of Marseilles, thus endorsing Santa Barbara’s image as the American Riviera.
Another bright new face on the Gaucho roster is that of first-year forward Carter Clemmensen, who scored 114 goals in his career at Brophy Prep in Phoenix and was named Arizona’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He and Roach play at opposite ends of the field like mirror images, both 6′3″ tall and confident in their abilities to score goals and prevent goals. They made their acquaintance via text messages before they met on the practice field last month. “The first time he shot, I’m pretty sure I saved it,” Roach said. “He scored a couple since then. We’re pretty good friends.”
In their first three home matches, the new-look Gauchos showed they are nothing like last year’s team that went 6-8-5. Vom Steeg called it their “redemption tour,” as all three opponents had defeated UCSB in 2017, including Westmont College in their annual exhibition game. This time, the Gauchos hammered Westmont, 7-0, then shut out St. John’s, 2-0, and took care of UC Riverside, 3-1.
Clemmensen came off the bench and scored goals against both St. John’s and UCR. Top Drawer Soccer named the first-year its national men’s Player of the Week. “When the ball hits the back of the net, it seems Carter is involved,” Vom Steeg said.
He did not create the scores by himself, Clemmensen noted. “There are three playmakers [including Candia] for me,” he said. “I didn’t have that in high school.” Sophomore forward Rodney Michael also benefited from the Gauchos’ fortified attack. Coming to UCSB after being named the California Gatorade Player of the Year for 2016-17, he was a marked man as a first-year, with defenders ganging up on him. Michael found himself alone on a breakaway against St. John’s and rifled UCSB’s second goal.
Roach, meanwhile, had an easy time behind a well-orchestrated Gaucho defense before Tani Oluwaseyi of the Red Storm challenged him one-on-one in the 72nd minute. The goalkeeper knocked away the shot with his right foot. It was his first collegiate save. “I thought it would never come,” Roach said.
Taieb, who came forward to score a goal against Riverside, spoke approvingly of the Gaucho first-years. “They know they’re good, but they’re humble,” the French defender said. “They know their qualities and their weaknesses.”
Roach could only flail at a perfect strike off a loose ball by a UCR player that spoiled his chance for another shutout. The Gauchos can live with those as long as they capitalize on their own opportunities. “Anytime you score three goals in a game, you have a good chance of winning,” Clemmensen said.
The win over the Highlanders was Vom Steeg’s 250th in his 20 years as Gaucho coach. St. John’s coach Dave Masur, who’s built even more of a legend (348 wins, including a national championship, in 27 years), gave the Gauchos a positive review after losing to them for the first time in three meetings.
“Santa Barbara is really good at attacking,” Masur said. “They have good options in the center, and a strong, big, physical back line. I like their temperament. They’re physical but composed. That’s the sign of a good team.”
They were a good team in the comforts of home, anyway. Vom Steeg warned that the Gauchos would face adversity in the Pacific Northwest last weekend. “Now we have to find out if we’re a road team, if we’re a tough team,” the coach said.
The journey did not go well, starting with a travel snafu that had the Gauchos arriving in Oregon hours before their Friday game against Portland. They outshot the Pilots, 12-8, but failed to score and lost, 1-0. It got worse Sunday, when Seattle University lived up to its preseason national ranking. The Redhawks unleashed 25 shots and won, 2-0; the margin would have been greater if Roach had not come up with seven saves. Furthermore, in their frustration, the Gauchos lost their composure. Clemmensen was red-carded in the second half after clashing with a defender in front of the goal.
It’s way too early to panic — UCSB’s national championship team in 2006 lost six games in the first six weeks of the season — but there will be some urgency Saturday night, September 8, when the Gauchos play host to Butler. The Bulldogs are defending Big East champions and feature high-scoring junior forward Brandon Guhl. Clemmensen will have to sit out the game, but sophomore Carson Vom Steeg, a center back who transferred from Stanford to play for his father, should be ready to see action.
Another big game at Harder Stadium will come two Saturdays later, September 22, when the UCLA Bruins come calling. Their clashes with UCSB are always meaningful — never more so than the 2006 College Cup final at St. Louis, when the Gauchos scored their historic 2-1 victory.
STUNNER AT CAL: After falling behind 2-0 Sunday at Berkeley, where Cal had not lost a nonconference women’s soccer game in four years, UCSB rallied with two goals in the second half to send the game into overtime. Just five minutes into the extra period, senior Madeline Gibson hit a rocket from the top of the box into the upper left corner of the goal for a 3-2 victory, improving the Gaucho women’s record to 5-1.