September 11, 2009

Gauchos stir things up in a soccer melting pot

Sept. 11, 2009

The world was first made smaller by ships. The airplane brought us even closer together, and now the Internet can magically click us anywhere on the planet.

But UCSB's sixth-ranked men's soccer team is also making the international seem local, with a roster that includes a dozen foreign-born players from nine countries.

Every continent but Asia and Antarctica is represented. It's enough to make you wonder when coach Tim Vom Steeg will start recruiting penguins.

"Those foreign players are attracted to Santa Barbara because we do have a kind of international feel to our program," he said. "But there is a lot of work that goes into having a player come from overseas.

"A lot of new rules have been put in, in terms of admissions and eligibility."

The effort has paid off so far for the Gauchos (3-0), who play the first of their two national television games on Friday at 8 p.m. against Rutgers.

Five of the seven players who've accounted for UCSB's nine goals and 10 assists are foreign-born.

Freshman Michael Nonni of Canada leads the Gauchos with seven points (two goals and three assists). Senior Martin Hedevag of Sweden has also scored twice.

Colombian-born sophomore Danny Barrera has a goal and three assists, Waid Ibrahim of Ghana has another goal, and Nigerian-born Machael David has recorded an assist.

UCSB also has players from New Zealand, Ireland, England and Norway. Of the 19 Gauchos who've seen action so far, only nine are Americans.

It turned last weekend's trip to the West Virginia Classic into a real cultural experience.

"The people there are a little different," said Hedevag, who speaks impeccable English.

"We were the only ones whose accents were different," explained Vom Steeg, who added that junior goalkeeper Sam Hayden of Wyoming was the only Gaucho who didn't seem out of place.

"He was able to talk the language - you know, with the 'y'alls,' and everything," Vom Steeg said.

UCSB likes to use the trips as geography lessons, especially for the Canadians, he said with a laugh.

He recalled the time when Tyler Rosenlund learned that assistant coach Leo Chappel was leaving UCSB to take over at Columbia.

"How's he going to coach there, not knowing the language?" Rosenlund asked.

"No, not the country Colombia," Vom Steeg instructed.

When he once asked alumnus Rob Friend if he planned to attend an upcoming NCAA quarterfinal match at UCSB, the former Gaucho from Canada replied, "No, I'm going to Atlanta, and I'm really looking forward to doing some gambling there."

Vom Steeg rolled that over in his head for a few moments before breaking the news that gambling is legal in Atlantic City, not Atlanta.

Nonni recently kept the Canadian streak alive during a video session which included a prior season's match against Connecticut.

"What's a UConn?" he asked Vom Steeg.

Saturday's excursion to West Virginia's football game against Liberty, meanwhile, seemed as alien to the Gauchos as a trip to Mars.

"Most of our guys didn't want to go, especially the African crowd," Vom Steeg said. "They were like, 'American football? What's this?' "

Hedevag said it was the first football game that he's ever attended, and he's starting his third year at UCSB.

"There've been a few times when it's been on TV, but I've often had to ask, 'What just happened?' " he said.

Of the Africans, David seemed the most enamored with following the odd-shaped ball.

"He was laughing the whole game, just kept screaming," Hedevag said.

UCSB's two Ghanians, Ibrahim and Michael Tetteh, "weren't as entertained," he added.

"They described football as an excuse for big guys to touch each other," Hedevag said.

The Gauchos draw big soccer crowds wherever they go. West Virginia set a school record by squeezing more than 3,000 fans into their 1,700-seat soccer stadium for Friday's match, which UCSB won 2-0.

But the Gauchos' Foreign Force was amazed by the football turnout on Saturday.

"Everyone was dressed in yellow, and they were coming from all over the place," Hedevag said. "The place holds 65,000, but I saw people everywhere.

"We left at halftime, and I think it was just as packed with people outside the stadium as it was inside."

The next day, Hedevag scored the game-winning goal against Pittsburgh, converting a header in overtime. His two goals this year have come in just three shot attempts.

"Martin probably has the highest goal ratio per shot in the country," Vom Steeg mused. "He's playing in our midfield right now, but when we need a goal, he finds his way up front."

Hedevag said it does take time to find common ground with the other Gauchos.

"You bring in all this talent from different places, with eight different styles of play, and coach Tim has only 10 days before the season starts to get everyone on the same page," he said. "You have one guy who's played zone defense, and another who's used to man-to-man.

"One guy plays long balls, and then we also have a lot of the Mexican influence, where they play these little two-yard passes at midfield.

"When it all comes together, though, it's something that's really to our advantage."

Vom Steeg is actually more afraid of how he's going to communicate with his team when freshmen Rob Hoyle of England, Stephen Boyle of Arizona and Robbie Boyd of Wisconsin are all on the field.

"In the heat of the game, I'm going to be yelling out all three names when I only mean one," he said.

Hoyle, Boyle and Boyd would be a tongue-twister in any language.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com