Aug. 25, 2004
SANA BARBARA, Calif. -
The 2004 UC Santa Barbara men's soccer season truly began three years ago when the Gauchos' 2001 recruiting class of Jon Apilado, Matt Bly, Neil Jones, Dan Kennedy, Tony Lochhead and Drew McAthy first stepped onto the pitch in Harder Stadium.
As it enters its final year, the sextet has already cemented its place in UCSB soccer history. The 2004 senior class helped usher in a new era of Gaucho soccer and it has been instrumental in a litany of success: two NCAA Tournament berths, two NCAA shutout wins in the NCAA Tournament, a Sweet 16 appearance, two season-ending top-20 national rankings, two Big West Championships, a 45-13-2 overall record, and 11 All-Big West awards. Suffice to say this group has proven itself on the national and regional stage.
Led by the trio of Kennedy, Lochhead, and McAthy, three of only four players in school history to earn all-conference honors three times, this year's seniors have appeared in, on average, 57 games each in their careers. With over 75 percent of their appearances coming as starters, they give head coach Tim Vom Steeg an experienced core of who have been an integral part UCSB's success.
The experience and leadership of the returnees will be crucial to the Gauchos, ranked 13th by College Soccer News and 15th by the NSCAA in the preseason polls, if they hope to compete for a first-ever NCAA National Championship. More than half of UCSB's 2004 roster is made up of newcomers. Ranked ninth in the country by both Soccer America and College Soccer News, this year's recruiting class will be looked at to fill the void in the Gauchos' midfield left by the departure of Memo Arzate and David McGill.
"Overall, we obviously had some holes to fill and we have addressed them in some pretty big ways," said Vom Steeg. "In terms of the players that we have added, in terms of attacking the goal, and in terms of players we are returning, it is all there. We just have to put it together."
With a roster loaded from top-to-bottom with more talent and skill than any other in Gaucho history, the key to Santa Barbara's success in 2004 will come in its ability to develop chemistry on the field. Fortunately for the UCSB coaching staff, they addressed that issue over a season ago.
"Chemistry is so important to our program," Vom Steeg said. "We have usually been able to address this by recruiting players who are familiar with each other. Part of our recruiting plan always is to try and bring in pairs or groups from the same programs, like we did this season with the [San Diego] Surf, with the guys from the Canadian [U-20] National Team. That's what we did with Neil and Tony three years ago."
Finding a blend of players that works well together is at the top of Vom Steeg's and assistant coach Leo Chappel's list of things to get accomplished before the season starts, because once again the Gauchos will play one of the top schedules in the country, so there is no room for a learning curve. In the second week of the season UCSB travels to the University of Connecticut to take on the former National Champion Huskies and 2003 NCAA Tournament participant Seton Hall. Just a week later UCSB heads to the University of New Mexico's tournament to take on defending National Champion Indiana along with Columbia. When you throw the University of San Francisco into the mix, Santa Barbara will play three matches against one-time NCAA Champions in 2004 and five matches against teams that played in last year's NCAA Tournament.
On the outside, UCSB returns one of the conference's top reserves in Matt Bly. Junior Bryan Byrne also gives the Gauchos a tremendous amount of speed coming from both sides of the field, and junior college All-American Ivan Becerra (Los Angeles, Calif./Mission JC) has an excellent left foot to go with his size.
The greatest competition for playing time will come in the middle of the field, which will primarily be manned by newcomers. Redshirt junior Efren Mata will be expected to take the early lead in directing Santa Barbara's attack. The fact that Mata has spent one season at UCSB probably gives him a leg-up on fellow Compton College transfer Tino Nunez (Long Beach, Calif.). Nunez however, along with freshman Tyler Rosenlund (Port Coquitlam, BC/Riverside Secondary), a late addition to the roster, will undoubtedly be in the picture. Combined, the threesome will give Gaucho coaches the envious dilemma of how to split playing time.
"The big key for us this season," Vom Steeg began, " is to be able to find a combination on the field that works. We will be very good up front and out wide going to goal, but the midfield is the center of our field in terms of distribution. We somehow have to replace Memo's [Arzate] ability to spray the ball all over the park and we feel like we have the players who will be able to do that. But again, so much of being able to spray the ball all over the park is guys being on the same page."
While the offensive side of the ball needs to have some pieces fit together, the defensive side is outstanding. The return of three-year starters Lochhead and Apilado, along with sophomore Greg Curry who started 20 in 2003, UCSB has a core group of players with the valuable experience of playing together. Despite the experience returnees, the Gauchos will not be playing the same defense as seasons past.
"I am hoping that this year we will be able to play in the back the style and level that I think can get us a championship," assessed Vom Steeg. "We were up-and-down last season and were forced to play Greg [Curry] as a sweeper, but this year we won't need do that again."
"Davis is already a complete player at a very young age, he will certainly need to get bigger and stronger like most young players do, but in terms of his play he is already a complete player," said Vom Steeg. "He gives us some freedom to do things with the defense and midfield which we have not been able to do before."
Between the pipes is almost a non-issue, except for the fact that sophomore Kyle Reynish is back after redshirting last season. It is a non-issue because the Gauchos return the reigning Big West Goalkeeper of the Year in Dan Kennedy.
Having only missed two games in his career, both due to red card suspensions, Kennedy has started every each and game he was eligible for since becoming a Gaucho. Entering his final season at UCSB, Kennedy already holds the school record for goalkeeper wins with 42, matches played with 61, and his career goals against average of 0.98 is lower than any other keeper in UCSB history. And if Reynish should get the call he has already proven to be as much of a rock between the pipes. As a freshman he appeared in seven matches without allowing a goal, posting a pair of wins.
"This is the most talented team that UCSB has ever seen," stated Vom Steeg. "But we know what happens with talent and expectations and all of that. So again, the key to this year's team is a matter of finding the right combinations on the field. And hopefully whatever we put on the field we can build on early."