Aug. 22, 2008
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Entering last season ranked No. 1 nationally, the UC Santa Barbara men's soccer team doesn't necessarily feel that the year was a failure because they didn't finish in the same position. However, to get to that point again, the Gauchos are going to need some help from a lot of new faces.
Several key players who helped the program win its fifth Big West Conference title in 2007, as well as the 2006 national championship, have departed, including six that were drafted by Major League Soccer teams, easily the largest draft class in the program's history.
This year's squad will feature 15 returnees and a whopping total of 17 newcomers. One of the most talented, and largest, recruiting classes in program history, College Soccer News ranked UCSB's incoming contingent sixth in the nation and tops on the West Coast.
"Half the team is new," said head coach Tim Vom Steeg, in his 10th season leading the Gauchos. "That is the story. The closest I've had to this was my first year at UCSB when we let half the players go and had 15 openings. It was a brand new team but it was very fun because we just coached them. This is the closest we've had and that was a successful season."
The Gauchos enter the 2008 season ranked No. 9 by College Soccer News, No. 10 by Soccer Times, No. 11 by Top Drawer, and No. 21 by the NSCAA. In addition, Santa Barbara was chosen to win its third consecutive Big West crown by the league's coaches.
Headlining this year's team will be a trio of decorated seniors - forward Chris Pontius, the reigning Big West Offensive Player of the Year; First-Team All-Big West midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan; and forward Nick Perera, the 2006 College Cup Most Outstanding Offensive Player. The fourth and final senior on this year's roster is defender Kyle Kaveny, who will add experience to the Gaucho back line after starting 14 matches in 2007.
"We have a very, very talented young group to combine with our seniors," Vom Steeg said. "Normally you want one or two freshmen starters. We'll have five freshmen starters, which speaks well for the future."
Two of the team's top players in Pontius and Perera head this spot while talented sophomore Bongomin Otii returns after a redshirt year.
Pontius, a 2008 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy candidate, led the Big West last year with 11 goals and ranked second on the team with 24 points. He also recorded five game-winning goals. Perera, who along with Pontius appeared in all 21 matches last season, scored two of his four goals in the final three games of the year. Otii, who is expected to miss the first five games of the season recovering from knee surgery, made history in 2006 when he became the first Gaucho to score five goals in his first five games. Otii appeared in 24 of the team's 25 matches that year and should find himself in a regular spot once he returns from surgery rehab.
Joining them will be freshmen Reid Fraser, who is 6-foot-5 and "in the mold of Rob Friend," a former Gaucho great, according to Vom Steeg. Kyle McAthy comes to UCSB after one year at UCLA. A sophomore. McAthy is the brother of Drew McAthy, the Gauchos' career goals and points leader.
"We'll have a formidable front line," Vom Steeg said. "These guys could play for anybody."
UCSB will miss the power of Tino Nuñez up front. Nuñez started all 21 matches in 2007, collecting 15 points on five goals and five assists in his senior campaign. Nuñez is currently playing for Real Salt Lake after being drafted in the second round (17th overall pick) of the 2008 Major League Soccer Supplemental Draft.
Perhaps UCSB's most talented array of players, there are several to keep an eye on this year. Leading them is Motagalvan, who in Vom Steeg's words is "a big-time player for us. He comes back and makes the midfield and we're putting players around him."
Motagalvan started all 20 matches he played in 2007 and registered 14 points on five goals and four assists.
Freshman Danny Barrera, a player many regarded as the top recruit in the country, will be joining Motagalvan in the midfield after September when he recovers from knee surgery.
Vom Steeg is extremely excited about freshman Machael David, a Tacoma, Wash. native, calling him "very different than any other player we've had at UCSB. He is a crafty dribbler, has an incredible work rate, and he can change the game. He's going to be a big player at UCSB."
Highly-touted recruit Bryan Dominguez, Los Angeles native Luis Silva, and Swede Christian Dahlskog are three other newcomers that Vom Steeg expects to make a quick impact. Other freshmen middies include local product Vincent Alvarez, Joe Eubanks, and David Ponce.
"Right now we're looking to have Bryan and Alfonso together," Vom Steeg said, "but we're a lot more flexible because Bryan is more mobile."
David Walker will provide depth after the junior played in all but one of the Gauchos' matches last season, as will classmate C.J. Cintas, who will battle for more playing time this year. Swede Martin Hedevag also returns after playing in nine matches off the bench in 2007.
Santa Barbara suffered two big losses in the midfield as Eric Avila and Ciaran O'Brien departed school early following the 2007 season to sign with MLS squads. Avila, who was third on the team with 16 points last season, is currently playing for FC Dallas. O'Brien, an All-American that led UCSB in point production with 25 (7G, 11A), can be found on the Colorado Rapids' roster.
"You will not see another defender like Andy play college soccer, at least for four years," said Vom Steeg.
A four-time All-American and three-time Big West Defensive Player of Year, Iro was drafted by the Columbus Crew in the first round (6th overall pick) of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. Greg Curry, although not playing, was taken by the San Jose Earthquakes in the third round (29th overall pick) of the supplemental draft following his senior year.
There are three returners that will help fill the void. Aside from Kaveny, sophomore Michael Boxall and junior Jon Curry should see significant time on the pitch. Boxall, specifically recruited to replace Iro, recently returned from China where he represented his native New Zealand at the Beijing Olympic Games. Curry, the younger brother of Greg, notched nine points over 20 games last season.
Also adding depth is junior Jonathan Zerah and sophomore Jordan Kaplan, who redshirted in 2006 and didn't play last season. A pair of freshman may see some time in the back, Vom Steeg said, and they are Michael Tetteh, who hails from Ghana, and Ireland's Peter McGlynn. Other freshmen defenders include Rod Fahmian, Tim Pontius (the younger brother of Chris), Taylor Thompson, and Robbie Tulchin.
Left without any experience in net after losing last year's starter Bryant Rueckner, a pair of freshman will battle for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Kristopher Minton and true freshman Trond Helge-Takset will vie to replace Rueckner, who played every minute in 2007. With a 70.5 percent save success rate, Rueckner allowed just 1.04 goals per match.
"The goalkeeper saga, that's just life," Vom Steeg said. "We were so spoiled because of Kennedy and Reynish."
The team appears to be leaning toward Helge-Takset, a native of Norway, since he is 21 years-old and thus has more experience even if it isn't at the collegiate level. However, Minton has been in the program already for a year, and "if he had to start tomorrow he'd do fine for us," Vom Steeg said. There is a good chance that a platoon system could come into play.
"We feel OK about the goalkeeper situation," Vom Steeg said. "Between the two of them, we'll get it covered."
For the first time in program history the Gauchos will have two games televised live - Sept. 5 vs. Kentucky and Oct. 17 at Cal Poly, both on the FOX Soccer Channel - but it's a non-television event that looms largest on the schedule.
In a battle of the past two national champions, UCSB will host No. 1 Wake Forest on Sept. 21 at Harder Stadium in the first of three consecutive games against nationally-ranked squads.
Following the Sunday evening match vs. the Demon Deacons, UCSB will travel to match-up with Indiana on Sept. 27. The Hoosiers are ranked fourth by College Sports News and seventh by the NSCAA and also are the team that defeated the Gauchos in a penalty-kick shootout in the 2004 national title game.
UCSB will then travel to Los Angeles on Oct. 1 and face off against No. 14 UCLA, whom the Gauchos defeated to capture the 2006 national title. The UCLA game is the Gauchos' final tune-up before beginning Big West play.
"We play six games before we hit the big three," Vom Steeg said. "We have to finish games, find a way to win games, and try to get better as we win games. Ultimately, if we go 1-1-1 out of those three, we'll be happy."
The season kicks off Aug. 23 with the 46th Annual Bryant & Sons Cup, an exhibition match against cross-town rival Westmont. The regular season begins Aug. 29 as Air Force visits Harder Stadium.
-- UCSBGauchos.com --