SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – After capturing a fourth consecutive Big West North Division title last season, but falling short in the Big West Tournament, the UC Santa Barbara men's soccer team will look to gel an influx of 16 newcomers with 12 returners to remain atop the conference and make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
While the Gauchos have the talent to be successful, they will have to do so without reigning Big West Midfielder of the Year and the team's leading goal scorer, Kevin Feucht, who suffered an ACL injury on the first day of practice and is out for the season.
"We had built our system of play around Kevin, who in our opinion is one of the top five players in Division I college soccer," said head coach Tim Vom Steeg who enters his 19th season at the helm of the program. "There is no way to not talk about it or talk around it. It leaves a huge hole that unfortunately has affected us and we are going to have to change things a little bit and do some things differently because Kevin was an integral part in everything that we did."
Feucht paced the UCSB offense last season with 11 goals, more than one-third of the team's total, while adding two assists en route to numerous postseason accolades. In his absence, the Gauchos will turn to a handful of key returners to lead the charge.
After a standout freshman campaign that led to an All-Big West Freshman Team selection, Noah Billingsley figures to be featured prominently on the attacking front in 2017. The New Zealand native is fresh off an appearance at the U-20 World Cup and after some key departures, returns as the lone player that scored a goal last season.
Seo-In Kim returns to the UCSB midfield after missing all of 2016 due to a knee injury. The Duke transfer scored a pair of goals for the Gauchos in 2015 and will be a key player up the field.
Anchoring the defense will be a pair of All-Big West selections from a year ago in left back Randy Mendoza and goalkeeper Titouan Le Roux.
Mendoza has been a three-year starter for the Gauchos defense while Le Roux made an immediate impact as a freshman, logging 65 saves and finishing second in the conference with a 0.72 goals against average.
Other key returners that have played big minutes in a UCSB uniform include defenders Mateo Restrepo Mejia, Alex Liua, Jan Ilskens and midfielder Josue Salgado.
Apart from the returners, one of the strengths of the team will be the depth created by the talented incoming class.
"I think we have the best group of new players, from a talent perspective, that we've had in some time," Vom Steeg said. "I really feel like from this group of new players that we added to the program, half of them will have a legitimate opportunity to start."
Incoming players that will factor into the defensive equation right away include Adrian Adames (Bilbao, Spain/Santutxu FC) and William Gillingham (Auckland, New Zealand/Onehunga Sports) on the inside along with Frazer Poulter (Vancouver, Canada/Vancouver Whitecaps), Kavian Kashani (Los Angeles, Calif./Orange County Blues FC) and Omari Fontes (Sacramento, Calif./Republic FC Academy).
"We had to redo our defense from last year and we brought in a handful of players that can all play in the back, either outside back or center back, and it has been a very competitive situation to see who the starters will be," said Vom Steeg.
From an attacking standpoint, a trio of newcomers have impressed early on at training camp.
Joseph Ammer, who hails from Dornwang, Germany, spent last season playing for Division II Florida Southern College and tallied five goals and five assists in just 10 games before going down with an injury. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior has the potential to be one of the top midfielders in the conference for the upcoming season and beyond.
One of the most dynamic attacking players thus far in training camp has been freshman Rodney Michael, who had a stellar prep career at Dunn School and was named California Gatorade Player of the Year in June.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the preseason has been the play of Ignacio Tellechea. The Madrid, Spain native spent the 2016 season with West Virginia Tech, leading the Golden Bears to the NAIA Elite Eight while earning All-American honors after racking up 20 goals.
"It's a welcome addition to have quality young players join the program and I'm very excited to be able to work with this group," said Vom Steeg. "I'm also excited because this is a group that I believe will be staying together, not just this year, but also next year which is an important year for our program."
UCSB will host the College Cup in 2018, and again in 2020, and will hope to have the pieces in place to compete for the national title on its home pitch.
The Gauchos face their first test of the season with an exhibition against Westmont this Saturday, Aug. 19 at 7:00 p.m. at Harder Stadium. The regular season will kick off next Friday, Aug. 25 at home against St. Mary's at 7:00 p.m.
To reserve your season tickets today, click here or call the UCSB Athletics Ticket Office at 805-893-UCSB (8272).