December 14, 2010

COLLEGE CUP: A slice of 'Soccer Heaven'

Dec. 14, 2010

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - They call it "Soccer Heaven," and the name fits.

UC Santa Barbara's Tim Vom Steeg has built in the last dozen years one of the nation's most prominent college men's soccer programs -- with nine successive NCAA tournament appearances, two College Cup title-game appearances and the 2006 national championship -- and the students and community have responded with unprecedented support.

It's evolved into what Vom Steeg calls "the perfect storm," and the reward is this weekend's NCAA College Cup final four, the biggest event on the college soccer calendar.

The Gauchos didn't make it to the party -- they were controversially eliminated by Cal in the second round -- but they've been committed to making it a most memorable event anyway.

"Our fans know soccer. They're soccer-savvy," UC Santa Barbara athletic director Mark Massari said before Friday's semifinals whittled the competition to No. 1 Louisville (20-0-3) and No. 2 Akron (21-1-2) in Sunday's 1 p.m. title game (ESPN2). "So we told the NCAA in the pitch two years ago [to bring the College Cup to Santa Barbara]: 'It's about soccer. Our people will come. Cross our fingers we're in it -- we'll play our butt [off] to get there -- but if we're not, you'll have four teams and a community that supports the soccer. This is "Soccer Heaven."'

"[The pitch] was all about Santa Barbara and the weather and the landscape and the stadium -- and our fans will come out."

UCSB fans have been coming out to 17,000-seat Harder Stadium in droves since 2004, when the Gauchos became a national power with a run to the College Cup final at Home Depot Center, where they succumbed to Indiana on penalties. They've draw four 10,000-plus crowds -- 15,896 for a showdown with UCLA in September -- and annually leads the nation in attendance.

To get there, the school needed a winning program, and Vom Steeg, who played for UCSB in the 1980s, has provided one. The Gauchos are 171-66-25 since he took over before the 1999 season, and they've won seven Big West Conference titles in the past decade. They're 16-7-2 in NCAA tournament play, winning at least one game in eight of nine appearances.

The apex was a national title in 2006, captured in a title-game triumph over UCLA. Students, dubbed the "Gaucho Locos," celebrated by carrying a goal from Harder Stadium to the campus beach, singing and chanting as they marched, and tossing it into the Pacific.

"We don't encourage throwing state property in the ocean," said Massari, who arrived from Oregon State in 2008, "but it was a signal, I think, for campus solidarity. When you don't have a football program, it's [difficult] to have a Saturday experience on campus for alumni and students to enjoy. Soccer serves that for us."

When Vom Steeg took charge, following seven seasons (with a 121-18-4 record and a state title) at Santa Barbara City College, there was little tradition and not much fan support. UCSB had gone 10-43-4 in the previous three seasons, but he had vision and methodically began turning things around. He was 13-7-0 that first season, took the Gauchos to their first NCAA tournament in year four, and was in the national final in year six.

To get there, he brought in players with talent and character -- starting with New Zealand national-teamer Tony Lochhead -- and made invaluable connections with the community.

"We had 3,000 kids in the community, ages 6-12, kicking a ball in [the American Youth Soccer Organization]. and where they played was almost across the street from our stadium," Vom Steeg said. "It's a madhouse out there, and my thought was: How do we get these parents and grandparents and the kids to basically walk across the street."

He followed the model former UCSB women's basketball coach Mark French used in building his program into a powerhouse, sending players to work with youth teams and at community events. No request was turned down.

Winning brought in better talent -- Vom Steeg, a two-time national Coach of the Year, has produced 15 All-Americans and 14 pros, including Columbus Crew center back Andy Iro, D.C. United striker Chris Pontius (Yorba Linda/Servite HS) and Chivas USA backup goalkeeper Dan Kennedy (Yorba Linda/El Dorado HS) -- and more attention from the community.

Students jumped on board, too, and suddenly the place to be in Santa Barbara was UCSB soccer games.

The rowdy Gaucho Locos, who celebrate goals by tossing tortillas, have provided an atmosphere unlike any in college soccer.

"They take up a third of the [main stand], and they're not just coming to the match. They wear the gold shirt we ask them to wear, they wear the scarves, they do chants -- it's a great passing of traditions," Massari said. "They march in from [the student community in] Isla Vista, come in Loco Way on the backside of the stadium. ... It's a very European/world type of [atmosphere].

"If you're an American soccer person, you watch the World Cup to [see] all the atmosphere, all the passion, and our kids bring it."

Some 11,214 showed up for a 2004 playoff game against Virginia Commonwealth -- it's a made-up number, Vom Steeg says; the school stopped selling tickets at halftime and let everyone in for free -- and they've reached five figures three times since: 10,114 last year against Indiana, the 15K-plus for UCLA, and 11,242 in October against Duke.

The UCLA crowd would have reached 20,000, Massari says, had fire marshals not cut off sales. He estimated 11,000 students -- from an enrollment of less than 20,000 -- were inside Harder.

The Gauchos have a season-ticket base of about 2,000 -- unheard of in college soccer -- and they averaged 5,873 in attendance this year. Friday's NCAA semifinals drew 7,560; a bigger crowd is expected Sunday.

Massari instituted a marketing campaign to increase the program's visibility, and the school spent $1.5 million on upgrades to the stadium, the most visible addition a 62-foot scoreboard with a video board.

Massari says the soccer team's success and popularity "carries over to a bigger picture for us," that it's a tool to attract top students and provide alumni a rallying point to support their alma mater.

As important are the ties to the community. Massari estimates 75 percent of UCSB soccer fans have no concrete connection to the university.

"A lot of people [in Santa Barbara] just fall in love with soccer. Or they fall in love with winning. Or they'll just fall in love with Santa Barbara. They'll mesh themselves into the landscape of Santa Barbara, and we're part of that landscape."

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