That International Flavor

Nov. 6, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

The fights? Oh, they're part of it, sure, said UCSB men's soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg. But count them as a side effect to greatness.

You see, when you've got a team built on foundations planted across the globe, you're bound to have some, say, differences of opinion. On the way soccer should be played. On the way a team should function. On why the hell that pass didn't hit its target in perfect stride.

"It is absolutely not unusual for us to have practices literally stop with guys screaming and yelling at each other," Vom Steeg, now in his 11th year at the helm of UCSB, said. "Even the Africans, they're very, very emotional, and they'll start screaming at each other: `You should've played me here, played me there,' even within that group itself. I let it go because I'm good with the conversation as long as it's about soccer."

And that friction, that kinetic energy of fusing cultures and spirit, may be the biggest force - beyond even talent - behind the success of No. 3 UC Santa Barbara this year. Drawing from eight different countries (including three players from Ghana), a 30-man roster composed of 23 freshmen and sophomores has looked as mature as any team in the country in 2009 on the way to a 13-3-2 record and Big West regular season title.

Some of it's great recruiting, with Vom Steeg and his assistants combing U.S. high schools for a special combination of talent and intensity, looking for players, he said, that he "doesn't have to motivate." But more of UCSB's power derives from the willingness of 30 young men to subdue their cultures, their divergent backgrounds and styles of soccer, in pursuit of something greater - and what better time for cultural immersion than at college?

In a time when America's melting pot ideal has long been eroding, we see in the Gauchos the possibility of another way: a more cosmopolitan style, one in which members don't resign away their cultures and blindly assimilate, but find the parts of those upbringings that can contribute to a more vibrant whole.

"I've always been attracted to diversity in culture," said Vom Steeg, who lived seven years in Brazil and coached for seven more at the massively diverse Santa Barbara City College. "It breaks up the homogenous Southern California crowd. [Internationals'] approach to the game is different. Soccer takes on a life-or-death passion. ... And I like the diversity, the cross-cultural, because it blends a lot of kids to the whole group."

"You look in Europe you have people from South America, Asia," said sophomore forward Waid Ibrahim, a native of Ghana. "And here, you have the same thing - you have players from different countries coming together to create something special."

It was tough at first to squash his playing style, Ibrahim said. He'd been used to a more possession-based style of play, a common preference among African players. So had the players from other countries - Norway, New Zealand, Ireland, British Columbia, Sweden and England are also represented - been used to their own brands.

Not that adapting to a new style was simple for anybody from around Santa Barbara, either.

"I think that's tough," said Luis Silva, a sophomore midfielder from L.A. "It's tough for the coaches especially. Sometimes as a player I get frustrated, but you have to work through it.

"I'm used to knocking the ball a lot - we're Hispanic, that's what we do," he said with a laugh. "But if coach wants us to do something, sometimes it's hard to just do as he says."

But, over time, the players have learned. And as Vom Steeg's recruiting classes have grown more diverse - a decade ago, UCSB drew overwhelmingly from Southern California - the teams have gotten more dynamic.

Now, said Ibrahim, the lineup features an entire 10-man field crew all with vastly different talents and abilities. Each player, fitting all the while into the system, possesses his own penchant for danger. Ten players have scored goals for the Gauchos this year, with 14 recording points. Meanwhile, a team that allowed 39 goals last year has given up just 12 this year.

"I've gone beyond my coaching, where I've had to evolve as a coach with the group with we recruited 10 years ago and the groups of players we recruit now," Vom Steeg said. "I have to be pretty clear about what it has to look like on the field and that it has direction and focus.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "You bring in lots of cultures, and you can create something great. The flipside is the team never comes together, and they decide that you end up your season being a talented group of player who finished at best .500 because you could never get on that same page."

He doesn't go out seeking foreign-born players, nor does he want to pack his roster with a dozen players from the same foreign country, Vom Steeg said. It's just that it's the internationals who stand out, time and time again.

"One way or another we are at some field, and we're watching a kid who plays a little different," he said.

It helps, Vom Steeg said, that the majority of players the teams recruiting these days go to American high schools. Thanks to a comprehensive soccer exchange pipeline, high school and prep soccer teams teem with international talent. And, due to the costs of crossing oceans to see recruits play and NCAA regulations, international players at American high schools have become some of Vom Steeg's main targets.

So, they're a little more `Americanized' by the time they hit the UCSB campus, Vom Steeg said. The iPods and the cell phone plans are there. So are the clothes and the cultural touchpoints.

From there, the team's free to beat each other up on more important things: namely, soccer.

"We respect each other, but sometimes in practice, we just don't agree with each other," Silva said. "We maybe scream at each other, but overall, we're all on the same page ... That makes us a better team, every day, because we just go through and let it pass, and forget about it and look forward."

It's not that any combination will fit, however. Soccer coaches trade horror stories about players coming in from overseas who expect a college soccer season - 20 games crammed into a little over two months, coupled with the rigors of academics - to be a lot more like home.

A lot more like home.

"People have dabbled in this area, and it can also go south," Vom Steeg said. "You'll have a foreign player, where in the middle of training, he pops out a cigarette. And now the game's over and he's gonna go down to the pub. `We're like, `No, it's college soccer we don't break out the cigarette packs.' We've never had that, but I've heard of those stories."

But right now, it's all working at UCSB. Enough for the Gauchos to lead the NCAA in attendance again this year, drawing nearly 5,000 fans at their matches - not counting the 9,824 that showed up at Cal Poly to watch UCSB tie the Mustangs to claim the Big West regular season title on Wednesday. Enough for the UC Santa Barbara soccer program to look increasingly more and more like soccer does around the world.

"We were in Ireland two years ago - we've always had a kid from Ireland - and I went to see this game," Vom Steeg said. "It was a dark, wet, cold night in Ireland and there were 2,500 people in the stands. Everybody's on top of the field - they're screaming, singing, yelling. Every tackle, every challenge is life or death. And even though it's Ireland, not an EPL game, the passion and energy in that stadium was unbelievable. You take a kid that's just ingrained with it and you drop him on your team and your squad, and you can't help but have it rub off."