Ema Boateng enjoyed hanging out with sports royalty in July when he was a guest at the 2012 ESPY Awards show, thanks to being named the Gatorade Player of the Year in high school boys soccer. “Robert Griffin III [the Heisman Trophy winner] talked to us,” said Boateng, whose spectacular performances at Cate School in Carpinteria brought him national recognition. “Brandi Chastain … Alonzo Mourning … They all talked about the competitiveness and the hard work that it takes to be the best.”
Now a freshman at UCSB, Boateng was a celebrity last Thursday when the Gauchos made their annual visit to the Adelante Charter School on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. The college players showed some 100 children their soccer skills and then turned them loose on the playground with a bunch of balls. At the end of the morning, autographs were much in demand.
It had to be inspiring to the schoolkids that they were almost as big as several of the Gauchos. Boateng is 5’6” and 150 pounds; senior Nic Ryan is 5’8” and 130 pounds. But on the soccer pitch, they are plenty big enough. In UCSB’s season opener at Loyola Marymount, a 2-1 Gaucho victory, the winning goal was scored in the last two minutes on a header by Ryan off a crossing pass from Boateng.
Boateng wasted no time in adapting to the college game. “It’s much faster [than in high school],” he said last week. “I could tell the difference in the first couple games. I couldn’t run past people. I’m getting used to it, but I’m still looking for my first goal.”
He took care of that last Friday night at the University of San Diego. Early in the second half of a scoreless game, Boateng took a pass from Fifi Baiden on the right sideline, poked the ball between the legs of a defender, dribbled around another defender, cut toward the middle, and fired a left-footed laser into the far corner of the goal.
The Gauchos went on to beat USD, 3-0, and two days later, they got goals from six different players in a 6-2 victory at Seattle University. Their record is now 5-0-1 — the only blemish a 2-2 tie with Oregon State – and they are ranked No. 3 in the nation this week by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
The stage is set for the highlight of the regular season on Meredith Field, the Gaucho home pitch at Harder Stadium. On Friday, September 21, at 6 p.m., UCSB will take on 12th-ranked UCLA. The match will be nationally televised on the Fox Soccer Channel.
The Gauchos have had some great moments against the Bruins, most significantly the 2006 NCAA championship match: UCSB 2, UCLA 1. The last time they played in Santa Barbara, two years ago, the Gauchos won, 2-0, in front of 15,896 fans, an NCAA attendance record for an on-campus soccer match. The Bruins won last year’s match in Westwood, 3-2, and they went on to the College Cup Final Four.
A word to the wise: If you plan to attend the match, get there early. “Adelante” means “Forward,” and that could be the battle cry of the Gauchos. They are loaded with players adept at moving the ball toward the goal, and they have been getting the decisive finishing punches, as well.
“This is a very good group, very talented, and probably most impressive, an older, mature group,” Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “They understand the game.” The precocious Boateng, who learned the game at a soccer academy in his native Ghana and qualified academically for UCSB after his junior year at Cate, is mature beyond his years. “What he brings to the field, regardless of whether he’s 18 or 22 or whatever, is that he can change a game,” Vom Steeg said.
Ten different players have netted goals for the Gauchos, who have outscored their opponents, 18-6. Newcomers have tallied 12 goals. Vom Steeg is pleased to have so many scoring options after relying on Luis Silva, a first-round draft pick of Toronto who is a candidate for MLS rookie of the year, to carry the Gauchos last year.
Junior forward Achille Campion is the leading scorer with five goals. Campion and midfielder Goffin Boyoko, who has scored twice, are a pair of six-footers from France who transferred from NAIA schools in the Deep South to play in NCAA Division 1 with the Gauchos.
“The French style of play is aggressive,” said Campion, who was 8 years old when France won the 1998 World Cup in Paris. “The striker mentality is to go for the goal, and you have to be efficient.”
Ryan has a way of squeezing into open spaces from the midfield and has scored three goals. Other veteran midfielders — UCSB’s deepest position — include Machael David, Josue Madueno, and Baiden. Junior forward Dom Sarle leads the team in assists with four. Dion Acoff, a forward on the Creighton team that knocked the Gauchos out of the NCAA tournament last year, has come to play his senior year with them. Senior defender Peter McGlynn, who sat out last year with an injury, is a dangerous attacker up the right side.
The international diversity of the Gauchos is further enhanced by junior defender Daniel Welsh, whose hometown is Fife, Scotland. He is a transfer from UMBC (Maryland, Baltimore County). Vom Steeg said the 6’2” redhead is a vital addition to the team, a fast and athletic center back alongside 6’6” returnee Peter Schmetz. “It’s your defense that’s going to take you as far as you’re going to go,” Vom Steeg said. “We had to find somebody to complement Schmetz … [Welsh] is a great athlete. He can run with anybody, and he’s very smart on the ball.” Vom Steeg likened the position to the center in football. “He makes all the calls [in the line] and everything kind of works. You don’t quite realize it until you lose the center” — as USC’s football team did when its starting center missed the Stanford game.
“I can give a different dynamic to the back four,” Welsh said. “I’ve got speed. I can cover well. Because I’m Scottish, I can also talk when I’m on the field. I give everything I’ve got. We have small players, and people try to be physical against us. I like to stick up for my team.”
Vom Steeg noted that Welsh received “two red cards and five yellows” last year, but so far, he has a clean record with the Gauchos.
“I had a good time in Maryland, but I was looking for a new challenge,” Welsh said. “It’s such a good team here, one of the best in the country. It’s the place to be.” He is looking forward to the UCLA game. He estimated that 6,000 was the biggest crowd to see him play in Scotland, when his club, Livingston, played at the grounds of Celtic.
The Gauchos will return to the home field Sunday at noon to face Harvard in their last match before they begin Big West Conference play. The second match of the Sunday doubleheader at 2 p.m. will feature the UCSB women’s team, winners of their last three games, against 15th-ranked San Diego State.
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