SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – It's that time of year again. The time of year where a former football stadium on the edge of UC Santa Barbara's seaside campus begins to brim over with rowdy students and soccer-loving community members, transforming into Soccer Heaven.
The time of year where a group of student-athletes who hail from around the globe don the blue and gold and take the field for 90 – or sometimes 110 – minutes to display their talent and their passion for the beautiful game.
The time of year that new strategies are formed, new faces make their debuts, and that UCSB has a renewed opportunity to pursue the ultimate goal in collegiate soccer: a NCAA title.
Head coach Tim Vom Steeg – who is now in his 13th year at the helm of UCSB men's soccer program – and his coaching staff will introduce the 2011 squad this Saturday, Aug. 20 at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium in an exhibition against cross-town foe Westmont. The group that the Gaucho faithful will be meeting on Saturday – Vom Steeg believes – is the deepest that he has fielded in the last half-decade.
In addition to depth, the Gauchos will be a mature squad. The roster features six seniors – vs. its two in 2010 – and seven of the new additions have at least one season of collegiate playing experience under their belts.
"I think we have done a very, very good job of recruiting towards solving problems and fixing situations from last year," Vom Steeg said. "I feel like we very much have a complete team here."
The most glaring gaps that needed to be filled following the 2010 season were at goalkeeper and on the back line. Two-time Big West Goalkeeper of the Year Sam Hayden, 2010 Big West Defensive Player of the Year Michael Boxall, and All-Big West Honorable Mention Chris Hunter each completed their careers with the Gauchos. The trio started nearly every game last year and helped limit UCSB's opposition to 17 goals and a 0.73 goals per game average.
Joining Grandt on the defensive end of the ball will be a combination of three returning Gaucho seniors and three experienced transfers.
Playing out wide will be Peter McGlynn and James Kiffe, who are each entering their senior seasons at UCSB. McGlynn, who garnered 2010 All-Big West Second Team honors, has played in 59 games over the last three years and started all but one match in 2010. Kiffe also played in 20 games last year and accumulated six points (1 goal, 4 assists).
"When you put McGlynn and Kiffe in the game, you are talking about two wide attacking players that can really take off and beat people off the dribble and serve balls," said Vom Steeg.
Capable of playing in the middle or out wide is another senior, Tim Pontius, who made 19 appearances last season. Joining Pontius on the back line will be a trio of transfers: sophomore Mathew Glodack (Southern Connecticut), sophomore Peter Schmetz (Westmont) and junior Juan Gomez (L.A. Mission College).
"For the first time in the past six years, we have a lot of depth, especially in the center back position," Vom Steeg said. "In the past, if we lost a center back, we would have to pull a midfielder. So, we have always been trying to figure out how to get two quality center backs and a back four that are all on the same page.
"Coming into training camp, we didn't know what we were going to get with each of these players. We thought they were good, but like with André, they have been better than we could even hope for. It will be very competitive with who starts and it will be a great situation because each of them brings something different."
The final key to the Gauchos' defense is the role of defensive midfielder. Over the past two seasons, junior Machael David has logged nearly 4,000 minutes and become a mainstay in the Gaucho lineup. The dynamic Nigerian will once again be a key to UCSB's success.
Serving as another option in that position will be sophomore Fifi Baiden, who can fill in when David is unavailable.
While the Gaucho defense bolsters experience and depth, the offense may trump the back half of the field in both of those categories.
Garza is already garnering accolades, earning Preseason Second Team All-American status from College Soccer News and he has been named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List. Opoku, meanwhile, spent time this summer playing for his native Ghana's U-23 National Team.
As for Silva, the three-time All-Big West pick is back and healthy after a 2010 season that was hampered by injuries.
"He is a big key for us," Vom Steeg said of the senior. "Right now he is healthy, he is fit and he did a lot of work during the offseason."
"Coming out of training camp, going into the season, the one key player that we have added to that attacking group is Dom Sarle," Vom Steeg said. "He has grown up being a midfielder, but has been used up front because he is very good around the goal, which is what we need."
Sarle is a sophomore transfer out of St. John's where he was an All-Big East selection. He is also a U-20 U.S. Men's National Team product.
"We realized our attack was good last year, but it didn't produce the number of goals that it should have." Vom Steeg said referencing the Gauchos' 37/4 shots-to-goal ratio. "So, the big emphasis is on the fact that we have to bury some balls.
"Our training sessions have been good so far. We have a lot of good players, so the level has been very good. Now it has to translate on the field."
Following this weekend's exhibition, the Gauchos – who have been ranked among the nations' top-10 in two preseason polls – will return to Harder Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 27 for their official season-opener against Seattle University. They will then hit the road to play No. 23 Duke and NC State in Durham, North Carolina.
Highlights of the 2011 slate include a pair of Big East opponents – West Virginia (Sept. 9) and Villanova (Sept. 11) – visiting Santa Barbara, a road game at No. 6 UCLA (Sept. 16) and a televised home game against defending NCAA Champion Akron (Oct. 5).
The Big West Conference season – which the Gauchos have been predicted to win in the preseason coaches' poll – will kick off on Sept. 28 at UC Riverside.
"We are excited about the season, about the strength of schedule," Vom Steeg said. "This is the right kind of team to play that kind of schedule. This group can go anywhere in the country and beat somebody because a) they are very talented and b) they are extremely motivated to do well. This is a team you want to take to Duke, UCLA and to the playoffs."
GKids is the official kids club of UCSB Athletics available to kids in eighth grade or younger. Members receive the official 2011-12 GKids t-shirt, Olé's Coloring Book and Guide for Being a Gaucho, entry into every regular season soccer, basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball game, and much more! To sign up today, click here.