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Dec 15, 2004

Gauchos earn IU's respect

It was reported that on the two-hour bus ride from Santa Barbara to the Home Depot Center on Friday, the University of California Santa Barbara bus broke down, and the team was twenty minutes late for their semifinal match with Duke.

As it transpired, this would be the only setback the Gauchos suffered all evening, as they dismantled the Duke Blue Devils in a shockingly easy 5-0 victory and advanced to the school's first ever National Championship match.

Senior leader, Drew McAthy, scored in the first minute of play, and the Gauchos never looked back. Duke seemed at least two steps behind the superior Gauchos all night long, never establishing a rhythm or effectively keeping possession of the ball.

The Blue Devil defenders afforded the Gaucho midfielders plenty of room to operate all night long and pick out their strikers at will. A not-so-typical showing for the Blue Devils defenders that had been lauded all season for their moxy and grit.

In contrast, UCSB's Andy Iro was rock-solid in his central defensive position, stopping each and every Duke advance and looking more like a wise and battle-tested senior than a true freshman. In their first trip past the Sweet 16, the Gauchos looked like seasoned veterans, and in the process surprised many observers who predicted they'd fall to the Blue Devils.

In the other semifinal, Indiana emerged as victors but did so with considerably less aplomb than the Gauchos, needing double-overtime to see off Maryland. A team that moved the ball so well and effectively under Jerry Yeagley for so many years looked sloppy and seemed to be working incredibly hard just to string together more than three or four passes.

In the end, though, their superior College Cup experience helped them prevail, and in dramatic fashion, John Michael Hayden emphatically stamped their ticket to Sunday's College Cup final. After watching this game though, one had to wonder if IU had the legs or the heart to match up with a Gaucho team that seemed to fear no one in the country, not even the defending champs.

The Gauchos, self-proclaimed as the "fittest team in the country" wanted to come out hard and force the Men's College Cup Championship to be played fast and physical, the way they wanted.

The Gauchos knew IU was coming off a hard-fought double overtime victory against Maryland in their semifinal match Friday night. The plan for the final seemed to be to take it to the Hoosiers, force the pace and attempt to run them into the ground.

In this respect, the Gauchos initially came out resembling a rugby team more then a soccer team. The foul count early was high and New Zealand International and Gaucho forward Neil Jones was especially guilty for some early dirty tackling and shirt grabbing. Jones' early hitting was just the beginning of what would become a rough and tumble 40 plus foul match.

Other then the early goal by IU's Jacob Peterson, the Hoosiers rarely won the ball anywhere where it mattered on the field. The Gauchos continually won balls in the air, kept possession, and showed more intensity than the defending champs.

Another problem for the Hoosiers was the fact that their midfield maestro, Brian Plotkin, was nowhere to be found the whole game. During the regular season, Plotkin was one of IU's key playmakers, often serving his strikers scoring opportunities on a silver platter. In this game however he had a hard time trying to escape the man marking of UCSB's Nate Boyden, who stifled any attempt Plotkin made to influence the match.

The Gauchos eventually equalized after sustained pressure in the last twenty minutes of the second half. Blame this on the conservative strategy of first year head coach Mike Freitag, who apparently decided that packing the defense in the last third and trying to shut it down was the way to go. It's inconceivable that Freitag opted to choose this tactic over what the IU Hoosiers typically do so well, spread the ball around the field.

Instead of constantly booting the ball downfield and immediately giving possession right back to the Gauchos, the Hoosiers should have used their superior skills to move the ball around and kill off the clock instead of allowing the Gauchos to control the ball almost continuously for the last twenty minutes in IU's end. Luckily, it's a decision that ultimately didn't come back to haunt Freitag and the Hoosiers.

The other pivotal moment came during the penalty-kick shootout, when UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg made an incredibly bold decision. He substituted starting keeper Dan Kennedy for the taller and longer reaching Kyle Reynish. Seeing as this was the defining moment for the UCSB program, putting in a cold keeper off the bench was a bit of a gamble, to say the least. Reynish however saved two shots and lived up to his end of the bargain, and it's safe to say Vom Steeg would have been lauded for the move had the UCSB penalty takers showed more nerve when it counted.

Did IU deserve to win? That's debatable. UCSB was definitely the better team, fighting tooth-and-nail for every ball and wreaking havoc in the Hoosier penalty box on several occasions. Were the Hoosiers tired after playing a double-overtime semifinal match, sure, but they didn't look equal to UCSB's challenge at all in the final.

Despite taking the initial lead, the Hoosiers didn't look sharp. They were content for most of the game to play more dump-and-run soccer instead of their usual possession and counter-attacking style.

As for UCSB, the Gauchos didn't play as though this was its first ever title game and only third appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Some people might not like their direct and physical type of play, but it brought them tantalizingly close to winning the program's first National Championship. Tim Vom Steeg can take heart from this near victory.

The grit, determination and never-say-die attitude exhibited by Gaucho players such as Andy Iro, Drew McAthy, Neil Jones, and Tony Lochead could entice an increased number of talented players in the future to attend UCSB, a new emerging national soccer power.

Mike Stoll covers college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: collegekicks@hotmail.com