October 30, 2009

Gaucho Great Keeps Rolling

Oct. 30, 2009

By John Greely, Daily Nexus

It's good to be good, but it's better to be lucky. Andy Iro is a bit of both.

The former Gaucho turned pro-footballer has a knack for winding up on good teams. When he left his Liverpool, England home in 2004 to play soccer 5,000 miles away, there was no way he could have known the kind of success he would achieve over the next half-decade.

In his first year in the States, Iro featured on the best soccer team in UCSB history, garnering First-Team All Big West honors as a freshman and taking the Gauchos within penalty kicks of a national title. His next three years saw him carrying Santa Barbara defensively, including a 2006 College Cup Final where he single-handedly held off UCLA's forwards at the end of the game to give the Gauchos their first-ever National Title.

Then, with four years on one of the nation's premier college teams under his belt, Andy left for the professional ranks. With the sixth overall pick in the 2008 Superdraft, Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew selected the Liverpudlian to shore up its defense. He did that and more, starting in 11 games and playing in seven more on the way to the Crew winning the MLS Cup. This year, Andy has continued to contribute with eight more starts for Columbus and has helped the squad to its second consecutive Supporters' Shield (given to the most successful regular-season team).

So with so much success since he came to America, is the Gaucho Great beginning to get jaded? Not even a little.

"It's a dream what I'm doing," Iro said of his MLS lifestyle. And as for his college days? "I look back, and it's great. I can't complain about anything in my U.S. experience."

He seems to have made a few fans along the way as well, not least of which is Columbus Head Coach Robert Warzycha.

"Obviously he's 6'5", he's a lot taller," Warzycha said. "It's difficult to find a guy [like that]. His strengths are definitely winning the balls in the air. ... and he doesn't look fast, but because as big as he is, he can keep up with any forwards.

"Every time I put him on the field he's doing good; he's doing what he's supposed to do. It's good to have a player on the bench who can go any time."

In fact, Warzycha thinks he has a unique talent in his second-year center back.

"He's bigger than everybody else, and he's a left-footer," the head coach said. "I can't picture him as anybody else in the league."

And while he may be unlike most of the league, that doesn't mean he can't learn a thing or two from seasoned veterans. One such player who has helped Andy progress is teammate and Crew-MVP Danny O'Rourke.

"He's improved night and day since last year," O'Rourke said. "He's become more comfortable on the ball, and that's a gradual improvement."

O'Rourke has also developed a friendship with Andy off the field.

"I'm fortunate enough to sit next to him in the locker room, and we've become real close," he said. "We don't have enough light in the day for me to start [telling stories] about that guy." Fortunately, he shared a few.

"He always has a lot of philosophical sayings that really don't amount to anything. One time he sat me down, got all serious with me, and he said in a really straightforward voice, `The essence of life is living.' I looked at him like `what?' "

"We call him GI, Generation Iro, we're all just witnesses. ... He eats it up."

Iro had a different version of the story.

"I mean ... Danny's a lost soul," Iro said. "I don't know what it is. ... He is from small-town Ohio. It's my responsibility to share some wisdom."

Andy has also been keeping up with former Gaucho teammates-turned pros, like Chris Pontius and Eric Avila.

"We all stay close because there aren't many of us," Iro said. He reserved special words for Pontius.

"The thing about Chris," Iro started, "is Chris and I lived together for years. ... He feels he has to get one up on me every time.

"He's an idiot, man. Hopefully we'll either be playing together soon or against each other real soon."

Pontius, whose first MLS season ended recently with no playoff appearance, retorted, "[Columbus] is only good because he never plays."

Clearly Andy's having a good time in the MLS, but he still has further aspirations for the future.

"In a couple years I'd like to go back to Europe and play in England for a while, Iro said. "Then eventually I'll come back to America, finish up playing and get into coaching. Eventually I'll coach UCSB. That's the long-term plan."

Current Gaucho Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg says that plan sounds good to him.

"Yeah, in 10 years he can have it, I'm gonna give it to him."

Until then, Iro is just going to enjoy the ride.

"I'm really happy about my decisions," he said. "Things are falling into place."

You can watch Iro and the Crew throughout their playoff run, starting this Saturday against Real Salt Lake at 3 p.m.