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Dec 4, 2006

Gauchos find the legs to run Bruins ragged

Maybe it really was meant to be. Or maybe UC Santa Barbara simply wasn't going to be denied the national championship again. Either way, the odds were against UCSB winning its first College Cup title on Sunday. However, two years after a gut-wrenching loss to Indiana in the 2004 finale, the Gauchos put together a performance for the ages, beating storied SoCal rival UCLA 2-1 to take the title. In the process the Gauchos became the first unseeded team to win the College Cup since Connecticut in 2000.

"It kind of felt like we were destined to do this," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said Sunday night. "It's not often that you play this good a game on a stage like this, but I knew our guys could do it."

Because UCSB was playing just 21 hours after it had eliminated Wake Forest on kicks from the mark in a scoreless semifinal match, most observers expected Gaucho coach Vom Steeg to adopt a defensive posture to lock down the Bruins' high-powered offense. After all, his banged-up team was up against an in-form opponent that erupted for four second-half goals in their mauling of Virginia the day before.

Instead, Vom Steeg instructed his players to attack the UCLA goal relentlessly from the opening whistle. The seemingly questionable strategy paid off almost immediately when midfielder Nick Perera scored less than three minutes in, giving his side a lead they would never relinquish.

"UCLA is too talented to allow them to set up in the midfield." Vom Steeg said.

"They like to win the ball, keep possession and break you down that way. We felt that sitting back was a losing strategy. The only question was if our guys had the legs to do it."

Turns out they did. Even after the goal, the Gauchos continued to pour on the pressure. Eric Avila had a good chance to make it 2-0 in the eighth minute, and Perera rung the far post on a low shot in the ninth.

UCLA had a chance to pull even in the 20th minute when midfielder Jason Leopoldo was hauled down inside the area on what looked like an obvious penalty call. But referee Erich Simmons ordered the sophomore to his feet much to the dismay of the Bruins.

The game settled down midway through the first half. Still, it was the Gauchos creating all the dangerous chances. Canadian youth international star Tyler Rosenlund hit another post in the 27th minute, and UCLA keeper Eric Reed was forced to fingertip a goal-bound header over the crossbar on the stroke of halftime.

Overall, it almost seemed like the two programs had switched places. An energetic UCSB dominated possession with the slick passing combos and savvy off-the-ball movement that usually is UCLA's trademark. Meanwhile, the favorites were holding on for dear life.

It didn't help either squad that the so-called California derby was played in decidedly un-Californian weather. The mercury read 23-degrees at game time, with the wind chill making it feel closer to single digits.

To combat both fatigue and the harsh conditions, Vom Steeg rotated his front runners to keep them fresh and used four subs in the first half alone. His counterpart UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo made only three changes overall, all in the second stanza.

One player Vom Steeg didn't replace was his hobbled hard man, 6'5" defender Andy Iro. The Englishman was on the field for all but the final eighteen seconds when a bloodied mouth from a midair collision finally forced him to the sidelines.

It was Iro, who will have surgery on a bum right knee this week, who epitomized the fighting spirit of his team. "Andy is our emotional leader," said Vom Steeg. "He's such a warrior. In the second half he won everything in the 18-yard box. The other players really fed off that."

As for the young Bruins, their inexperience finally caught up to them Sunday. They had been so impressive all tourney long but simply picked the wrong time to have a bad game. Star midfielders Sal Zizzo and Kyle Nakazawa never found their rhythm, not least because the Gauchos were all over them, and neither did David Estrada or Leopoldo all afternoon.

And the moment UCLA began to panic, UCSB punished them for it. In the 61st minute, Perera forced a turnover near the midfield touchline and executed a perfect give-and-go with Irishman Bryan Byrne, springing a counterattack that Avila deftly finished to put UCSB up 2-0.

However, for this wonderfully entertaining game to become an instant classic it needed some late drama, and it got it.

With 15 minutes left, the Gauchos finally began to wilt. UCLA threw everything forward and finally got on the board with just over ten minutes remaining when Leopoldo's cross deflected off keeper Kyle Reynish's hands and into the goal.

However, a near miss by sub Sean Alvarado with four minutes left was as close as the Bruins got to claiming UCLA's 100th NCAA title.

When time expired, the UC Santa Barbara players and staff celebrated around the distraught Bruins, many of whom slumped to the frozen turf, some with tears streaming down their faces. That was exactly how several of the nine Gaucho holdovers from 2004 reacted to their painful defeat two years earlier.

Count on this, though: Sunday's loss will only make the Bruins stronger. Salcedo insists that, unlike past years, none of his underclassmen will bolt for the pros, which means almost his entire roster is returning. So UCLA is already the early favorite to win it all in 2007. And next season, not only will they have the talent, they will also have vital Cup experience, something Vom Steeg says helped give his team the confidence that it could pull off the upset.

"Our main motivation was that we were playing UCLA, but we also felt that if we stayed focused, worked hard and played well we'd have the advantage because we'd experienced the College Cup before."

For the second time Sunday, turns out he was right.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.