“Football banned; soccer sweeps U.S.” That was the response of Sports Illustrated contributor Hank Hersch when asked to predict the sporting future in just five words. But these four words suggest it’s not happening anytime soon: “Rams 54, Chiefs 51.” To an American public that likes to see an extravagance of scoring and bets on point spreads and over-unders, football retains its popularity.
To the rest of the world, there is nothing wrong with a 1-0 score in soccer. It is the most popular sport around the globe, defined by the tension and drama that persist for 90 minutes of continuous action in the hunt for precious goals. Those who can produce them consistently — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo — are rightfully recognized among the world’s most extraordinary athletes.
There is no denying that more Americans are becoming fans of soccer every year — from seeing their kids play the game, playing themselves, watching televised European matches, attending affordable Major League Soccer and college games, following the U.S. teams, and enjoying the men’s and women’s World Cups. The score of the 2018 World Cup final — France 4, Croatia 2 — was bound to please.
College soccer in the U.S. has a distinct flavor. It is fast-moving, contentious, and unrelentingly physical, but rarely high scoring. Because multiple substitutions are allowed, fresh players are always on the pitch, eager to spoil an opponent’s possessions. Skillful foreign players, attracted by the educational opportunities of college athletics, can find it challenging. The goalkeepers, displaying the athleticism of football tight ends or basketball power forwards, are usually first-rate.
The best that college soccer has to offer will be on display at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Harder Stadium next weekend. The final four teams of the NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament will play for the 2018 College Cup — the semifinals will be at 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 7; the championship match at 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 9. (UCSB’s team, alas, is already out of the running.)
It is the second time Santa Barbara has been selected to host the culmination of November Nuttiness, as the NCAA tournament might be called, because the only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability. Consider the 2006 tournament, when UCSB was one of the lowliest teams to enter the 48-team field and wound up beating No. 3–seeded SMU and No. 2–seeded Wake Forest en route to the final, where the Gauchos defeated UCLA, 2-1, on a wintry day in St. Louis. That championship, along with UCSB’s appearance in the 2004 College Cup final, led to the transformation of Harder Stadium into “Soccer Heaven,” where record-setting crowds attended Gaucho games and made it a desirable location to host the College Cup.
The event will go east to Carey, North Carolina, in 2019 and return here in 2020. There is talk of Santa Barbara becoming a permanent host city, as Omaha is for NCAA baseball’s College World Series.
“It’s hard to grow an event that moves every year,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “There are two things we have to get right. One is to have a good field to play on, and the other is to fill the stadium with people.”
Welcome to Soccer Heaven
There is some irony in the nomenclature of Harder Stadium and its entranceway, known as Curtice Gate. Both are named after men who coached football. Theodore “Spud” Harder made the Gauchos competitive on the gridiron in the 1930s, and “Cactus Jack” Curtice had them vying for the small college championship in the mid-’60s. The stadium was built in 1966 for football, but five years later UCSB dropped the sport. A second rendition of Gaucho football as a non-scholarship program lasted for six years, ending in 1991.
Vom Steeg, a former Gaucho defender, took over the men’s soccer program in 1999 after leading Santa Barbara City College to a state championship. Through aggressive recruiting and fundraising, he elevated UCSB to national prominence. The family of Will Meredith, one of Vom Steeg’s early players, was so grateful that their financial support enabled UCSB to install a state-of-the-art playing surface, dedicated in 2006 as Meredith Field.
The spacious natural-turf field was renovated before the 2018 season in anticipation of the College Cup. “It’s in spectacular condition,” said Tom Hastings, UCSB’s deputy athletics director in charge of the university’s College Cup organization. “All in all, we’ve done close to a half-million dollars in upgrades, some donor funded, some campus funded.”
Hastings pointed to the permanent bubble structures that cover the team benches. “In 2010, they were being put together an hour before the [College Cup] gates opened,” he said. Workers have been sanding and painting rust spots in the stands. “Holes in our battleship have been repaired,” he said. There have also been improvements in the sound and lighting systems. The stadium has an expanded reserved-seat section on the east side, with chairbacks.
Harder Stadium’s 16,000 capacity is more than adequate for the College Cup. The final in 2010 between Akron and Louisville drew a crowd of 9,672, the second largest for a College Cup final in the last 17 years. It was exceeded only by the 13,601 who watched UCSB play Indiana in the 2004 final at the StubHub Center in Carson, home of the L.A. Galaxy. Other attempts to hold the College Cup in professional soccer stadiums have resulted in meager turnouts, often because of adverse December weather conditions. There were 5,764 last year at Pennsylvania’s Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union, to see Stanford take on Indiana.
UCSB boasts the largest on-campus crowd for a regular-season college soccer game — 15,896 when the Gauchos hosted UCLA in 2010. For nine consecutive years, Harder Stadium led the NCAA in average home attendance. The crowds were rambunctious too, flinging tortillas onto the field when the Gauchos scored goals. Officials pleaded for them to toss the tortillas “up, not out.”
Early this season, before the start of UCSB’s home game against St. John’s of New York, as the singer of the national anthem was intoning, “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” a flock of wild geese flew over the stadium in perfect formation. The birds have been seen hanging out in an adjacent field throughout the fall. It would be cool to have a low-budget flyover at the College Cup, but Hastings said, “I don’t know if we can get them to do that again.”
There is reason to expect pleasant weather for the event. In 2010, the College Cup final was played on a glorious 80-degree Sunday afternoon after a rainstorm had cleared out. Rainfall would be considered a welcome inconvenience in this drought-plagued region and generally not detrimental to soccer being played; otherwise, the sport never would have gotten started in England.
If the tournament had been scheduled at UCSB a year ago, however, there might have been serious complications from the smoke of the Thomas Fire. “That has woken me up in the middle of the night,” Hastings said. “Something like the fire is force majeure, out of our hands.”
Advance ticket sales for the College Cup have met expectations, Hastings said. The prices (youth-adult-reserved) for all sessions are $30-$40-$60, and for the semifinal or the final only, $20-$25-$40. The event is being promoted by signs on MTD buses, TV commercials, and print ads. “The NCAA says, where is your billboard advertising?” Hastings said. “Welcome to Santa Barbara. It’s not what we do here.” Information can be found at ucsbgauchos.com.
The final four teams will be determined by the results of the quarterfinal matches this weekend. There is a slim chance that one of them will hail from the West Coast. In the first two rounds, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, Pacific, Portland, and Washington fell by the wayside. Only Stanford and St. Mary’s remained, and they were matched against each other in a “group of death” that also included top-seeded Wake Forest and Akron.
Stanford, relying on an impenetrable defense, has won three straight College Cups. Otherwise, every champion for the last 15 years — except for UCSB in 2006 — has come from east of the Mississippi. Every title holder in the last 20 years has come out of a power conference, except for the Gauchos and the Akron Zips.
Santa Barbara fans turned out in good numbers in 2010 despite all four contenders coming from out of the market. They produced three entertaining games. There were six goals in the semifinals — Akron defeating Michigan and Louisville over North Carolina, both by 2-1 scores. In the final, the Zips scored a goal in the 78th minute and hung on for dear life as a Louisville barrage went unrewarded in the final minutes, and Akron won, 1-0.
It was Akron’s first NCAA championship in any sport, and it brought a glimmer of athletic success to the Cleveland area that had been bereft by “The Decision,” LeBron James’s announcement that he would leave the Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat.
The Zips celebrated their victory by taking a plunge into the ocean off East Beach. All four teams coming to next week’s College Cup will again be housed at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.
Three of the last 10 College Cup finals resulted in scoreless ties after the regulation 90 minutes and two 10-minute overtimes, and the championships came down to penalty-kick shootouts.
Soccer purists dislike that solution, but it does produce high drama, much like a one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter with a baseball pennant on the line.
The NCAA soccer tournament dates back to 1959. St. Louis University collected 10 titles in the first 15 years. Indiana, with eight titles, and Virginia, with seven, have been the most successful teams since then. “I’d like to see Indiana come here,” said Vom Steeg, whose Gauchos lost a shootout to the Hoosiers in the 2004 final. “They have great fan support.”
The soccer gods have not been kind to UCSB in the years it has hosted the College Cup. In 2010, a controversial overtime defeat at Cal booted the Gauchos out of the tournament. This year, despite going undefeated (9-0-1) at home, they failed to secure their 13th NCAA appearance. They finished third in the Big West and lost a penalty-kick shootout to Cal State Fullerton in the conference tournament, opening the door for UC Riverside and UC Irvine to advance to the national stage.
UCSB’s 1-6-1 record on the road told the story. In all six losses, the Gauchos failed to score. “I really liked our group,” Vom Steeg said, “but we were missing that last piece” — a surefire finisher. In 2004 and ’06, the Gauchos had reliable scorers in Drew McAthy and Nick Perera. Rob Friend holds the school record for goals in a season — 20 — in 2002, when UCSB went into the NCAAs for the first time.
The 2018 Gauchos showed skill in moving the ball around the pitch and were solid on defense, but finding the net was an iffy proposition. Sophomore forward Rodney Michael was their leading scorer with seven goals.
“We needed to pick up a point or two to be in good shape for the postseason,” Vom Steeg said. “You need somebody who gets you a goal a game. I’m scouring high and low for this forward. You don’t know until you’ve got him.”
But even then, Vom Steeg said, “You’ve got to be a little lucky.” Soccer can be an exasperating sport. Only one college team will emerge unscathed through November Nuttiness.
College Cup @ Harder Stadium Schedule:
Semifinals: Friday, December 7, 5 and 7:30 p.m. Championship Match: Sunday, December 9, 5 p.m.