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Sep 18, 2008

Gauchos suffer on Eastern road trip

Ask and you shall receive, UCSB fans. We'll begin with the Gauchos this week, although not because I feel that I owe y'all one after incorrectly stating in this space seven days ago that standout defender Michael Boxall plays for West Coast rival Cal.

Actually, it just so happened that Tim Vom Steeg's squad was headed East to face Rutgers and Columbia this past weekend, and yours truly wasn't about to miss the rare chance to see the No. 13 Gauchos in the flesh against the latter on a glorious Sunday afternoon.

Heading to Columbia Soccer Stadium on the northern tip of Manhattan, I knew UCSB had been upset by the Scarlet Knights on a muddy, rain-soaked field in Piscataway, N.J., two days earlier. Still, I certainly didn't expect the 2006 national champs to drop a 3-1 decision to the lowly Lions, who were 0-2-1 entering the match.

After suffering the consecutive stunners, Vom Steeg admitted that the cross-country jaunt had tuned into a nightmare trip.

"Friday's game [against Rutgers] was on a field that was almost unplayable," Vom Steeg said. "We don't get a lot of rain in California, so we're not used to playing in conditions like that. We couldn't pass the ball and play the way we like to."

But Vom Steeg certainly couldn't blame Sunday's defeat on the weather. Instead, UCSB's problem in New York was its inability to finish a plethora of gilt-edged chances. Santa Barbara outshot the hosts 22-7 overall (including 12-3 in the second half). Hermann Trophy candidate Chris Pontius took seven himself -- three of them on target -- but his side's lone goal came on sub Danny Barrera's first-half strike with UCSB already down by two.

Scoring woes aside, the bigger issue for UCSB could be that, like other NCAA powers, the program is becoming a victim of its own success.

NCAA Scoreboard
This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you the scores from every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.

Click here for all the action.

One way to gauge this phenomenon is by noting how both Rutgers and Columbia celebrated beating the Gauchos as if they'd just won the College Cup. But more significant is the fact that UCSB is losing more and more blue-chippers to the professional ranks.

Six Santa Barbara players turned pro after last season, including junior Eric Avila (FC Dallas) and sophomore Ciaran O'Brien (Colorado Rapids), two of its three top scorers. What's more, Vom Steeg said he expects between six and eight from the current squad to go that route eventually, as well.

When you consider that five freshmen are in the starting 11 this season, growing pains like the ones this weekend shouldn't come as a total shock to the Harder Stadium faithful.

"There's no doubt that in college soccer, junior- and senior-led teams tend to do better," Vom Steeg said.

Lofty expectations don't always help a young team, either.

"There was a lot of hype coming in," Vom Steeg said. "At 3-0, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

"Now we can stop worrying about the rankings a little bit."

Still, despite falling to 24th this week and with a visit from defending champ and consensus No. 1 Wake Forest looming Sunday, Gauchos fans should remain optimistic about what the rest of the campaign might hold. After all, the last time their team lost two straight was in September 2006, when UCSB also started 3-2. You remember how that season turned out, right?

Vom Steeg, for one, still likes this team's prospects.

"This is the most talented group we've ever had at Santa Barbara," he said. "I think we can bounce back."

Looking around the country

If its first league game is any indication, don't bet against Wake's running the table this season. The Demon Deacons pounded Clemson 5-0 in both teams' Atlantic Coast Conference opener Sept. 13. The five-spot was Wake's biggest margin of victory in an ACC tilt in 10 years, and the lopsided scoreline allowed coach Jay Vidovich to use reserves for most of the second half.

"The last 35 minutes of the game was basically a team that will be playing next year," Vidovich told the school's official Web site. "It was great to give that youth a run."

The Deacs' next ACC encounter is a nationally televised tilt at Maryland on Sept. 26. Circle that Friday on your calendars now.

Keep an eye on fifth-ranked St. John's. At 5-0-1, SJU is off to its longest unbeaten streak to open a season since 2001, when the Red Storm advanced to the College Cup semifinals. They posted clean-sheet wins vs. Boston University and Virginia Tech at home this past weekend, but things get tougher from here: Eleven of SJU's last 12 regular-season contests are Big East affairs, beginning with a trip to No. 3 Notre Dame on Friday.

Finally, Duke deserves some props after cracking the NSCAA polls this week at No. 25. The Blue Devils started 2008 0-2 (0-3-1 if you include a pair of August exhibitions) but then won three in a row. If they can get a good result in College Park against Maryland on Friday, the momentum could send the talented Duke squad soaring up the national rankings as well as the ACC standings.

What to watch for

No. 12 Creighton shouldn't have any qualms about embarking on its first road trip of the season, which begins with a visit to Stanford on Friday (11 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel): The Bluejays haven't lost away from Omaha since 2006.

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

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