Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Akron, American Professional Soccer League, Big West Conference, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Dominic Kinnear, Eric Wynalda, Gauchos, Harder Stadium, Indiana, La Playa Stadium, Louisville, Major League Soccer, Marcelo Balboa, Martin Vasquez, Maryland, Miami Fusion, NASL, NCAA Division I, Real Santa Barbara, Robin Fraser, Romania, Santa Barbara City College, Tim Vom Steeg, U.S. National Team, UC Santa Barbara, UConn, USL, Virginia, Western Soccer League
A crowd of 13,822 was on hand at Harder Stadium to see the host UC Santa Barbara men defeat Big West Conference rival Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2-0. [November 4]
Comment: Absolutely anywhere in America can become a soccer hotbed, even the laid-back, sunsplashed, tony beach town of Santa Barbara, CA.
Consider that when Harder Stadium played host to the most significant soccer match in its history, just 9,127 showed up to see the U.S. National Team–16 months ahead of the 1994 World Cup it would host–hold Romania to a 1-1 draw.
This match’s significance was along the lines of, perhaps, a game in the French fourth division. In winning, the Gauchos clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference playoffs and avenged a loss at Cal Poly earlier in the season. Hardly anyone in U.S. collegiate soccer noticed. But those among the 13,822 who hadn’t made the trip down the coast from San Luis Obispo went home happy and will be back again.
Somehow, Santa Barbara has become a soccer hotbed, at least on the collegiate level. Last year, Harder Stadium was site of six of the season’s 10 best-attended men’s matches. An early-season game against UCLA drew a throng of 15,896; followed by Duke at 11,242. UCSB hosted the 2010 NCAA Division I men’s final between Akron and Louisville, and that attracted 9,672. In all, the Gauchos, in 12 home games, led NCAA soccer in total attendance, 70,471, and average turnstile count, 5,873. By comparison, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion could muster only an additional 1,500 per home game before it was booted out of Major League Soccer.
There are other collegiate soccer hotbeds, like reigning champion Akron, and long-time powers Maryland, UConn, Virginia and Indiana. Like those schools, UCSB men’s soccer is a winner and represents a school far from any bright lights, but it has the additional advantage of not having to compete for attention with a gridiron football team. Regardless, most NCAA Division I men’s teams are lucky to break four figures on a regular basis, and nearly every NASL and USL club would kill for the Gauchos’ box office numbers.
Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg must be left marvelling at it all. When he was a younger man, standout defender Vom Steeg was a member of the now-forgotten Real Santa Barbara (1989 and 1990), then of the Western Soccer League and American Professional Soccer League. It was the highest level of soccer in the U.S. at the time. Playing a few miles down the coast at La Playa Stadium on the campus of Santa Barbara City College, Real Santa Barbara faced the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda, Robin Fraser, Martin Vasquez and Dominic Kinnear. Announced attendance was always in the neighborhood of 830, but reality said that there were no more than a hundred souls in the stands, and most of them could be caught gazing beyond the field, past the gently swaying palm trees and marina to the blue Pacific. The prospect of any Real Santa Barbara game being televised nationally–like the UCSB-Cal Poly match–would have been both laughable and embarrassing.
Obviously, things have changed in Santa Barbara. But there is the suspicion that the biggest change involves the rise of a generation of soccer-savvy young people who are willing to rally around the right team at the right time and who realize that those good times they see beamed from major European stadiums can be replicated here in the U.S.
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