Soccer Stars Converge at Harder Stadium

Former Gauchos, Now Pros on L.A. Galaxy, Energize UCSB’s College Cup Hopes

The L.A. Galaxy battle against Fresno FC at Harder Stadium

Paul Wellman

The L.A. Galaxy battle against Fresno FC at Harder Stadium

There was a glimpse of the glory days of UCSB men’s soccer last Thursday night: Chris Pontius slamming the ball into the goal at Harder Stadium in front of thousands of cheering fans. Pontius, who as a sophomore in 2006 played a key role on UCSB’s national championship team, scored this goal to give the L.A. Galaxy a 2-1 lead over Fresno FC in a preseason professional match that the Galaxy eventually won, 3-1.

“It’s nice to be back,” said Pontius, who scored 29 goals in his Gaucho career and enters his 10th year as a pro with 45 goals in Major League Soccer (MLS). The Southern California native not only was back on his old college turf but also is back home for the season after spending nine years back east with D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union.

Ema Boateng, a third-year Galaxy forward who was a Gaucho in 2012, described Pontius as “an absolute professional. He never complains about anything. He works hard and is a great leader for us this year.”

The Galaxy needs new leadership after falling to the bottom of the MLS standings last year. The club has brought in several new players and hired veteran coach Sigi Schmid to try to revitalize a team he led to the first of its five MLS championships in 2002.

In a preliminary game Thursday, the UCSB Gauchos defeated the Ventura County Fusion, 3-1. Coach Tim Vom Steeg viewed it as the first step in a long, steep road to the 2018 College Cup, the NCAA championship tournament that will take place at Harder Stadium in December.

To make their first appearance in the final four since 2006, the Gauchos will have to make a significant leap from last year, when they struggled to score goals and went 6-8-5. Vom Steeg believes they have the ingredients to recapture the old magic.

“We’re returning 9 or 10 guys, with most of our good pieces,” Vom Steeg said. They include forward Rodney Michael, who was Big West Freshman of the Year. The coach is hopeful that German midfielder Kevin Feucht, whose knee injury in the first practice last year dealt a devastating blow to UCSB’s plans, will enroll in graduate school and play a full season.

Despite their losing record last year, the Gauchos planted some seeds for growing into a contender. When Boateng decided to sign a pro contract in Sweden after his only season at UCSB, it was apparent that, for all the excitement he created, the “one and done” aspect was not conducive to sustaining a consistent program. They need guys like Pontius.

The Gauchos had led the nation in attendance for nine consecutive years starting in 2007, but the streak ended in 2016. They were still in the top three, but to call their stadium “Soccer Heaven” seemed a little exaggerated. The turnout for last Thursday’s double-header, somewhere around 4,000, was substantial for a weeknight and showed there is an appetite for good soccer in Santa Barbara. With the presence of the Angel City Brigade, a Galaxy fan club that stood throughout the match while drumming and chanting, the event had a festive atmosphere

Many of the fans came out to see Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, the two Galaxy players who expect to be on Mexico’s roster at the World Cup this summer. They started the game against Fresno but were subbed out in the first half. Pontius played the full 90 minutes, while Boateng rested, with the club playing another match Saturday.

Justin Vom Steeg, the 20-year-old son of the UCSB coach, is the Galaxy’s third goalkeeper, and he played in the second half, shutting out Fresno with a couple of saves.

DONS AND FRIARS: Chris Pontius came to UCSB from Servite High in Anaheim, as did his younger brother, Tim Pontius, who was an outstanding defender. Tim scored the longest goal by a Gaucho in 2011 when he sent the ball 61 yards over the head of the UC Davis goalie. It can still be found on YouTube. Servite is currently the No. 1–ranked boys’ soccer team in CIF Division 1, and the Santa Barbara Dons are No. 2. If they can each survive three playoff games, the Dons and Friars would meet for the championship on March 2 or 3.

RECRUITING TALLY: Goalkeeper Ben Roach is one of the reasons for the success of the Dons. The 6′3″ senior recorded 11 shutouts while Santa Barbara went undefeated (14-0-3) before losing to Dos Pueblos in the regular-season finale, 2-0. Roach will continue his career at UCSB next fall, as will DP forward Oscar Ferreira. Vom Steeg is high on both players, commending Roach’s “combination of great size with soft feet while at the same time being very technical.” The coach said Ferreira “can be one of the best out-wide players in the Big West.” Another hometown player signing with the Gauchos is SBCC forward Victor Chavez. He scored 16 goals for the Vaqueros, who went 17-1-4 last fall. UCSB has also recruited Carter Clemmensen, a high-scoring forward (112 goals) from Arizona’s Brophy Prep.

Fortifying the Gauchos with college experience will be transfers Hunter Ashworth (San Francisco), Thibault Candia (Temple), and Faouzi Taieb (St. Francis Brooklyn). Vom Steeg can only hope they work out as well as a pair of graduate transfers on the basketball team — Leland King II and Marcus Jackson — who have helped the Gauchos make the biggest improvement (from six wins all last season to 20 so far this year) in the nation.

WINNING WOMEN: The UCSB women’s soccer team has signed SBCC’s Chloe Montano and Kat Sheehy, who combined to score 27 goals with 17 assists for the Vaquero women, the state runners-up with a 21-1-1 record.

SPLASH-UP: Both the Dos Pueblos Chargers and San Marcos Royals reached the final four of the toughest girls’ water-polo competition in America, the CIF Division 1 playoffs. In the quarterfinals last week, the top-ranked Chargers downed Orange Lutheran, 12-7, and the Royals stunned No. 2 Laguna Beach in overtime, 8-7. Wednesday’s (Feb. 21) semifinals (DP–Foothill and San Marcos–Mater Dei) and Saturday’s final (Feb. 24) are scheduled to be played in Irvine.