Season Preview: Gauchos' Title Defense Begins with Annual Preseason Tune-Up vs. Westmont Saturday

Aug. 22, 2007

The Schedule
Preseason Exhibition Match
45th Annual Bryant & Sons Cup

Saturday, August 25, 2007
No. 1 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos vs. Westmont Warriors
Harder Stadium
Kickoff 7:00 p.m.

View From the Top
For the first time in program history, UCSB will open the season with a No. 1 national ranking after securing the top spot in the NSCAA's preseason Top-25 poll. The ranking eclipses the previous high of No. 4 that Santa Barbara earned before the start of the 2005 season after spending a total of seven weeks as the nation's top-ranked squad and advancing to the national title match in 2004. The Gauchos entered the 2006 season with a No. 21 preseason ranking from College Soccer News and No. 22 mark from the NSCAA.

We Are the Champions
UC Santa Barbara will honor the 2006 NCAA National Champion men's soccer team with a special ring ceremony prior to the start of tonight's scrimmage with Westmont. The Gauchos will welcome back four seniors from last year's squad and recognize the coaches and players for winning the program's first national title. UCSB salutes men's soccer for a tremendous accomplishment!

Battle For Santa Barbara (Sort of...)
• After a 39-year Santa Barbara tradition of UCSB and Westmont squaring off in the regular season, the two teams will meet in an exhibition match for the third year in a row. The Gauchos defeated the Warriors by a convincing 6-0 count last season in front of 1,062 fans at Harder Stadium.

• Westmont leads the overall series 23-17-4, but UCSB has been absolutely dominant lately, winning the last six contests by a combined score of 20-5, with three shutouts.

• The 45th Annual Bryant & Sons Cup match will once again be a solid tune-up for the Gauchos who begin their regular season next Friday at Pac-10 power Stanford, with kickoff slated for 7:00 p.m. UCSB's home opener will be the following Sunday, when the defending champs welcome Gonzaga to Santa Barbara in a 2:00 p.m. matinee.

Season Preview
In 2004, the UC Santa Barbara men's soccer team put the collegiate soccer world on notice after spending a total of seven weeks with a No. 1 national ranking, earning a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and advancing to the national title game. With a talented roster that featured seven seniors, UCSB accomplished a number of program firsts that season, including a school-record 21 wins and a trip to the College Cup, where the Gauchos dismantled Duke 5-0 before losing to Indiana 3-2 in a penalty kick shoot-out.

Afterwards, the thinking in the soccer community was that Santa Barbara had had its shot, that head coach Tim Vom Steeg had assembled his squad for a one-time postseason run in 2004. That his great group of seniors had worked together for four years and put together a tremendous season but had ultimately come up short. No one expected the Gauchos to return to the championship stage any time soon.

"In 2004 most people thought we were a one-hit wonder, that we would have to rebuild and that we would not be back," Vom Steeg, who is entering his ninth year at the helm at UC Santa Barbara, said. "People were thinking `Hey, great year. Now we wont hear anything from UCSB for 10 or 15 years'."

Fast forward to 2006. After falling to a disappointing 7-6 on October 11, Vom Steeg rallied his troops and demanded better play or the coaching staff would be forced to start to think about 2007. The Gauchos responded, embarking on a remarkable run that saw them win 11 of their final 12 games and return to the College Cup.

After winning a fourth Big West Conference title in the past six years, UCSB entered the postseason unseeded. The Gauchos got past San Diego State at home, went on the road to defeat top-ranked and third-seeded SMU and Old Dominion, then returned to Harder Stadium for a classic Elite Eight showdown with Northwestern. Santa Barbara advanced to face Wake Forest in the College Cup in St. Louis and, after 110 scoreless minutes, outlasted the Demon Deacons 4-3 in PKs. Less than 24 hours later, the Gauchos took the field against UCLA -- a school that UCSB has had little success against over the years -- and escaped with a 2-1 victory to claim the program's first NCAA National Championship and become the first unranked team to win the title since UConn in 2001.

So now that UCSB soccer has officially arrived and reached the pinnacle of college soccer, what's next for the Gauchos in 2007?

Not surprisingly, the defending champs enter the season with a No. 1 preseason ranking from the NSCAA - for the first time in program history - and look forward to embracing the expectations that come with winning a national title. The Gauchos return a total of 21 letterwinners and six starters from last year's team that finished 17-7-1 overall and claimed the university's first national title since 1979. Headlining the list of returnees are three-time All-American and back-to-back Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year Andy Iro, All-American and the Gauchos' leading scorer in 2006 Eric Avila, and College Cup Most Outstanding Offensive Player Nick Perera. Joining the returning players in 2007 will be another talented recruiting class that was ranked No. 13 by College Soccer News. In all, UCSB welcomes seven fresh faces this season, including a very talented transfer, a member of the New Zealand U-20 National Team, a regional standout, and an all-state performer.

After his squad surpassed all goals and expectations a year ago (the Gauchos' top priority in 2006 was to win the Big West Title and move on from there), Vom Steeg is thrilled at the possibilities in 2007.

"Now that we have won it, we are officially on the map," he said. "We have to be considered one of the nation's elite programs, one of 10 or 15 programs that are out there that can legitimately compete for a spot in the final four every year."

And with a championship ring under his belt, what does the two-time NSCAA Coach of the Year expect from his guys this season?

"Our goal really hasn't changed," Vom Steeg said. "Its hard to imagine being disappointed if we don't win a national championship, but I think we would be disappointed because I feel like we have prepared this year's team to win a championship. It just happened that we won it a year before we expected to."

A critical position for UCSB with perhaps the biggest loss from a year ago is the midfield. One of the keys to the Gaucho's success over the last few years has been a healthy Tyler Rosenlund playing well and connecting everything offensively. With his departure to the professional ranks, the coaching staff needed to find a suitable replacement right away. Enter standout transfer Ciaran O'Brien from the University of San Diego. The most highly sought-after transfer player in the nation this offseason, O'Brien comes to Santa Barbara after scoring six goals and dishing out four assists for the Toreros in 2006. With O'Brien stepping in and filling that role, junior All-American Avila will have the freedom to become more of an offensive threat rather than carrying the load and staying on the ball for 90 minutes. Senior Brennan Tennelle, who spent most of his time playing D-mid when he was healthy in 2006, is great at going forward and will also play in the offensive midfield this season.

One of the Gauchos' deepest and most-experienced positions in 2007 will be up front, with all seven forwards on last year's roster retuning. Providing great depth at the forward spot are seniors Tino Nuñez, who comes back in the best shape of his career at UCSB and completely healthy, Andrew Proctor, another player that returns in great shape after playing hurt for the entire year in 2006, and Tony Chinakwe, who should definitely lend a hand up front after spending his first season in the program and learning the ropes a year ago. Junior Perera will make a strong case for quality minutes after his coming out party in 2006 -- one that saw him score three of his seven goals during the Gauchos' postseason run, including Santa Barbara's early strike in the national championship. Second Team All-Big West selection Bongomin Otii returns after becoming the first player in program history to score five goals in his first five games in the blue and gold as a freshman last season. Lastly sophomores Paul Kierstead has made major strides after suffering a broken foot early last season and Guillermo Jalomo returns after appearing in eight games in 2006.

Although there will be some significant changes on the wings for Santa Barbara in 2007 with the graduation of All-Big West First Team selection and league leader in assists Bryan Byrne, the Gauchos will look to continue to attack on the flanks in addition to beating their opponents in the middle. Sophomore David Walker, who was arguably the team's most productive freshman in 2006, spent a lot of time out wide on the left and should continue to do so this season. Sophomore Jon Curry is back after an impressive close to his freshman campaign and can also run on the left. In addition, Chad Williams, a transfer from Hiram College and former member of the Jamaican U-17 National Team, has been in the program for a year and seems ready to contribute in the midfield. As far as the right side goes - a position that the Gauchos have made famous over the past few years - Avila appears to be in the line to replace Byrne as the coaching staff is looking to push him and his scoring ability out wide. One of Santa Barbara's most versatile players in junior Chris Pontius, will likely play in his best position on the right side this year after spending time at midfield, in the back, and up front in 2006. Redshirt freshman Jordan Kaplan will also be involved on the right side.

Entering the 2006 season, the Gauchos had some questions at the D-mid spot and the coaching staff new that they would be relying on some inexperienced players. But, true of any championship team, the guys that were called upon had to respond and did. In addition to Tennelle, Santa Barbara witnessed the development of two players over the course of last season and during the spring that are ready to hold things down in 2007. Junior Alfonso Motagalvan was brilliant down the stretch for UCSB a year ago - most memorably clearing a ball out of the box in the waning minutes of the 2-1 title game victory over UCLA - and should continue to do great things this season. Sophomore C.J. Cintas appeared in just three games as a freshman, but has had a great spring and plays the position very well. In addition, redshirt freshman Drew Gleason should also see some minutes at the defensive midfield position and Martin Hedevag, a defensive-mined midfielder from Gothenburg, Sweden, is a player the coaching staff feels is capable of stepping and helping in many areas on the field.

Another position with few question marks and many options for UCSB in 2007 will be the defense. There is no question that the heart and soul of the Santa Barbara backline is Iro, the first three-time All-American in Gaucho soccer history. One of the most decorated players the program has ever seen, Iro returns for his senior season, expected to have made a full recovery after having offseason knee surgery. The 2007 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy candidate is ready to anchor the backline after leading a defense that posted a 0.86 goals against average and a total of 12 shutouts last season. Fellow senior and co-captain Greg Curry returns on the right side after a very successful year in which he appeared in 15 games in 2006. Brother Jon has had an impressive spring on the backline and is an option the left. Junior Kyle Kaveny, who also looked good all spring and spent time at all three positions, is expected to emerge as a player that can fill anywhere on the backline. Pontius may also run at the right back, which would move Greg Curry over to the left side. In addition, the Gauchos usher in Michael Boxall, who comes to UCSB after a great performance for New Zealand in the U-20 Youth World Championships in Canada this summer. A big, intimidating defender at 6'2", 185 pounds who is already being touted as Iro's heir-apparent, Boxall should have an immediate impact on the Santa Barbara defense and help provide the depth in the back that the Gauchos have lacked the last few years.

No matter who gets the nod, UCSB's starting goalkeeper will be making his first appearance in the blue and gold in 2007 as the Gauchos will start the season with an unproven net minder for the first time in several years. While it will not be easy to replace the defending Big West Conference Co-Goalkeeper of Year and UCSB's all-time career leader in goals against average in Kyle Reynish, new goalkeeper coach Nate Failing and the rest of the Gaucho coaching staff have three very talented keepers at their disposal entering this season. The favorite to start between the posts is redshirt freshman Bryant Rueckner, who was a standout keeper in the United States National Residency Program and started 27 matches for the U.S. U-17s prior to his arrival in Santa Barbara. Rueckner's experience in big game situations - combined with the fact that UCSB's other redshirt freshman keeper Jason Badger under went shoulder surgery last season - makes him more ready to step in and fill Reynish's shoes. Badger, who was the highest-rated goalie at the Region IV ODP camp in 2005, will definitely keep it competitive. As if the Gauchos weren't talented enough in the net, freshman Kristopher Minton, an excellent keeper with the Irvine Strikers and an All-CIF performer at El Toro High School, enters the mix as well.

It is clear that UCSB has both a wealth of talent and experience across the board in 2007, with 22 players that have been part of the program, learning to play UCSB's style of soccer for at least a year. In all, Santa Barbara's returners have a combined 546 games, including 307 starts, under their belts and the newcomers have competed at the top levels of the sport from state to world championships. The only remaining question at this point is not necessarily how good the Gauchos will be, but what type of team will UCSB put on the field.

"We're not really sure if our team is going to be known for its defense or known for its explosive offensive," Vom Steeg said. "I think we can go either way but we definitely need to zero in on one or the other."

Either way, the Gauchos will be on everyone's radar in 2007.