Oct. 12, 2010
Tim Vom Steeg will occasionally glance over to the kids' play area at the north end of Harder Stadium and wonder if he's looking into UCSB's soccer future.
When he took over as the Gauchos' coach a dozen years ago, he would've seen a young James Kiffe romping around.
"I always came here as a kid -- but maybe I wasn't always watching the game," Kiffe said.
UCSB's junior left fullback pointed toward the south, closed end of the stadium and added, "Back then, there used to be a jumper over there. I was about 9, 10, and there used to be a little soccer field over there, too.
"We came out and supported the Gauchos. My parents have been good fans, so it's been really good for them to be able to come out here and watch me play."
It's been pretty good for Vom Steeg lately, as well.
Kiffe, the son of Joe and Deborah Kiffe, has gotten four assists and a goal while starting the last four matches in place of all-leaguer Michael Tetteh.
"Every home game we win, we give the game ball to a player and put it over his locker," Vom Steeg said. "The UC Davis game, he got two assists and just ran at them the whole time, so we gave him the ball.
"We said in the locker room afterward that here was a player who spent three years just trying to get himself onto the field."
Vom Steeg first noticed Kiffe when he was scoring 53 career goals as a four-time All-Channel League player for San Marcos High.
"He was very on and off, but it you waited around long enough, you'd see something great," he said. "We had a conversation back then about him walking on at UCSB."
Kiffe went to SBCC instead, and his 15 assists during the 2007 season wound up ranking second all-time in the school's record books.
"He was absolutely an attacking player, and very good at going forward," Vom Steeg said. "He could really beat you with his left foot."
But UCSB was the only school that took notice.
"Tim was the only coach who gave me a chance," Kiffe said. "Last year I sat on the bench here a lot, but I feel I really improved."
He got his big chance when Tetteh sat out the spring season with an injury. Kiffe was the only left-footed player available to replace him on the left side.
"He played every spring game at left fullback and was very, very effective at going forward," Vom Steeg said. "We felt he'd made a big jump.
"He was really good about asking questions. We still spend a lot of time talking about his position, but he's good at making adjustments."
The big question about Kiffe was his inexperience as a defender.
"I'm a converted forward," he conceded. "But they are letting me attack more."
Vom Steeg has a tradition of turning his fast fullbacks loose on upfield runs. Chris Pontius, a forward for Major League Soccer's D.C. United, made his runs from the back during UCSB's NCAA championship season of 2006.
Kiffe's emergence has prompted Vom Steeg to slide left-footed midfielder Danny Barrera, a preseason All-American, to that side of the field, as well.
"For whatever reason, with the combination of Kiffe and Danny on the left, we're just tearing teams up on this side," Vom Steeg said. "And the more they're playing together, the more they're getting on the same page.
"Kiffe has been good at getting off Danny's back side and overlapping him, and Danny's been able to feed him balls when he's running at people."
It's how Kiffe scored his first goal as a Gaucho -- which was also UCSB's final goal of Wednesday's 3-0 win over Cal State Fullerton.
Tetteh, who has been nursing a strained hip muscle, was cleared to rejoin practice on Monday.
"The bigger issue is not putting him over Kiffe right now," Vom Steeg said.
Kiffe welcomes Tetteh's return to the pitch.
"Hopefully when he comes back, I can push into the attack more, or he can push into the attack more," he said. "I'm actually looking forward to playing with Tetteh. It'd be a good combination.
"After all, we did play club together."
And not too long after he made the jump from the jumper.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: email@example.com