Groundhopping: Santa Barbara (California, USA) – Home of the Gauchos and the tortilla toss

Groundhopping: Santa Barbara (California, USA) – Home of the Gauchos and the tortilla toss

With the MLS combine underway, and the 2014 SuperDraft coming up on Thursday, it’s the time of year when the college game starts to get a lot of attention and some people who really have little idea about the players involved try and pass themselves off as informed experts.

So as the college clamour continues, we thought we’d bring you a couple of ‘Groundhopping’ pieces we’ve been saving on two NCAA schools to get you in the mood.

If we were to ask you to name a top NCAA soccer powerhouse, some of you may say Akron, or maybe this year’s national champs Notre Dame or last year’s winners Indiana. Maybe even UCLA because they’re a name. You might just think of teams dependent on where your MLS side got some draft picks from.

With eight different national NCAA Champions in the last eight years, and no back to back winners since Indiana in 2004 and 2005, it’s hard to really pinpoint who the main teams in men’s college soccer are these days.

Whatever team you picked, chances are you would be unlikely to say the Santa Barbara Gauchos, yet the Gauchos were national champs in 2006, runners up in 2004, came close to doing it again in 2010 and have played in every NCAA tournament since 2002 apart from one.

The Gauchos have also led the nation in attendance for the past seven seasons (48,191 for the 2013 season, nearly 14,000 more than second placed Clemson and an average of 3,707 per game), hold the record for the highest ever attended (on campus) NCAA match and have a really strong program which should have done better in the battle for the 2013 College Cup but were punished for a costly sending off.

The University of California Santa Barbara first fielded a soccer team in 1966, but they were only granted admission to the Big West Conference in 1983. They have been there for all but seven years when they played in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation when the Big West stopped sponsoring soccer as a sport for a brief period.

The past 30 years have seen the Gauchos crowned Big West Champions on six occasions and they have produced a number of players who have gone on to play professionally, including Canadians Rob Friend and Tyler Rosenlund.

Santa Barbara Gauchos 03From a Whitecaps connection, Gauchos centreback Michael Boxall was selected first by the Caps in the 2011 Supplemental Draft and Joe Cannon actually started his college career in Santa Barbara in 1993 before moving on to Santa Clara.

Boxall is still highly thought of amongst Gauchos fans, with several chatting to me about him when they saw my Whitecaps top. His picture even takes pride of place on the back of the ticket booth.

Another top MLS keeper, Chivas’ Dan Kennedy, is also a product of Santa Barbara and is one of a number of Gauchos to be found past and present in MLS, including his Chivas team-mate Eric Avila, San Jose’s Sam Garza and DC United’s Chris Pontius and Luis Silva.

They are likely to be joined by a couple of other seniors who have impressed with the Gauchos of late and should be picked up at various stages of the forthcoming drafts.

Santa Barbara play all of their home games on campus at Harder Stadium, in the Isla Vista outskirts of the city.

The 17,000 capacity stadium was built in 1966 and currently plays host to both the mens and the women’s soccer teams. It also played host to the 2010 College Cup, the ‘Final Four’ of the NCAA tournament, and was won that year by Darren Mattocks’ Akron Zips. Harder Stadium was also originally used by the football team as well but this hasn’t been the case for many a year.

Santa Barbara Gauchos 25The stadium has a beautifully kept natural grass pitch, Meredith Field, with seating on three sides.

The seating is all uncovered and is mostly of the bleacher variety, except for a few sections of blue bucket seats in the south stand, which runs about a half way along the touchline.

The stadium seating is split up into 17 sections, to incorporate the students, season ticket holders, families and single game attendees, with much of the stadium really general admission for most matches. I wandered freely in and out of the students section for the two matches I went to.

The north stand runs the full the length of that touchline, with the three students sections allocated there and as you can see from the photo above, it’s a sea of yellow on matchdays. It also houses the pressbox.

The east end of the ground, is lined with trees behind the goal and gives a beautiful view of the Santa Ynez mountains.

The seating at the west side of the stadium took up most of the space behind the goal, with two merchandise tents selling pretty much everything you could want as a Gauchos fan. The main concourse, with a concessions stall, is also in this area.

The concourse also hosted a giant inflatable mascot, a cute UCSB branded smart car and a fundraising stall for the Gaucho Fund, the mission of which is “to provide resources for a life-changing educational opportunity for today‚Äôs student-athletes”. You can also pick up the double sided, colour teamsheet for that day’s game.

The southwest section of the stadium also house the giant scoreboard and video replay screen.

UCSB ToiletsAs strange as this is to say, I loved the decor of the toilets! Both the men’s and the women’s toilets were emblazoned with respective gender players.

Entrance is by gates at the west end of the stadium. The main fan entrance is on the southwest side of the ground and tickets can be bought and picked up from the ticket booth across the road from it.

There are two pricing levels for parking. The cheaper option is a multi storey car park about a ten minute walk away, but if you’re lazy you can pay double and park right outside the stadium. Being Scottish, I’m sure you know what option I went for!

Tickets for 2013 matches cost $12, apart from the Cal Poly and Stanford games which cost a buck more. Season tickets were $68 (for 13 games), with the first 25 season ticket buyers getting a free UCSB sweatshirt and the first 500 a free loyalty scarf.

Students gain free entry and have their own entrance at the northwest side. They can also earn rewards for attendance and pick up a free “Goal Topia”/”Unleash The Loco” t-shirt (yellow of course) as long as you have their student ID. I tried the old “oh I left mine in the dorm trick”. I’m still without a t-shirt. Stupid scanning machines!

It’s a great way to instill some student pride into your school’s sports teams and it helps to create the fortress environment most teams crave. The whole program seems to be a success and is a massive reason for the large crowds. Definitely something that SFU and UBC should look into here in Vancouver.

Santa Barbara was named the 2nd top party school in August by the Princeton Review. Another poll ranked them the 3rd ‘Happiest’ college in the US.

Those elements clearly carry over onto the sports field and in particular the Gauchos men’s soccer team. They not only attract very healthy crowd numbers, but very vocal and boisterous ones. It also all very non PC when it comes to the chants and banter. Right up my street naturally! Made me feel right at home.

The Gauchos have led the NCAA in attendance for the past seven seasons and there is a tremendous atmosphere inside Harder Stadium, led by some hardcore fans, the vast majority of whom are bedecked in their yellow shirts.

Santa Barbara also holds the record for the highest ever attended NCAA on campus soccer game, when 15,896 packed into Harder Stadium for a game with UCLA in 2010.

The fans have built a rowdy reputation for themselves in NCAA. There was the time where they carried a soccer goal from the stadium and threw it off a cliff after their 2006 College Cup win as one example!

They’re loud, they’re proud, they’re not politically correct and they love their Gauchos.

It actually fantastic to see and be a part of when they’re in full flow, and the northwest corner of the stadium is covered with a tarp proclaiming Harder Stadium as “the loudest stadium in college soccer”.

They also have a MASSIVE local rivalry with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

The Blue-Green rivalry with Cal Poly Mustangs was named the number one college rivalry by College Soccer News and the games have been drawing massive crowds in recent years.

This past season, the first game played at Cal Poly drew a capacity crowd of 11,075 and was the first NCAA game to be sold out days prior to kickoff. The game ended 1-1 after double overtime and set up a cracking rematch in Santa Barbara two weeks later, which the Gauchos won 2-0 in front of 12,805 fans and on Fox Sports Prime Ticket TV. It was the highest attendance in all of NCAA in 2013.

Gauchos TshirtExactly what happened to stoke up this rivalry, I don’t know, because they were struggling to break the four figure mark for games just seven years ago.

Now it’s fierce, and the Gauchos students produce a limited edition yellow and blue t-shirt every season, with a different front design and a “Top Ten Reasons Why We’re Loco About Not Being Cal Poly” on the back.

As someone who’s done a lot of top ten lists in my time, this one was quality. I particularly appreciated “Cal Poly, keeping ugly girls out of UCSB since 1972”. Let’s just say there are a lot of hot girls around that stadium and campus!

When the Whitecaps were down in California to play San Jose in September, we turned it into a nice holiday and spent a week down in Santa Barbara after the game. It’s a beautiful city, with fantastic beaches and very dog friendly if you like to take your pooch with you on your travels like we do. Second time heading down there and it won’t be the last, but enough of the travel guide.

The Gauchos playing two home games during that week was a happy coincidence, or at least that’s what I told the wife, and I got to take in the games against Yale Bulldogs on Friday 20th and Ben McKendry’s New Mexico Lobos on Monday 23rd.

So what’s the gameday experience like at Harder Stadium? Fun, enjoyable and often electric.

The fans are certainly into it, although from listening in to a number of conversations around me, there are definitely a lot of people attending who haven’t been to a soccer match before, are not entirely sure what’s going on and a little bit confused by the chants.

But that’s how you learn, that’s how you build up a fanbase and it was great to see them all throwing themselves into it.

There’s a hardcore group right in the middle of the student section, leading the chants and acting as capos. The student association are known as the Gauchos Locos.

With the fact that so many supporters groups share the same songbook these days, it’s hard not to feel sometimes that North American supporters could be transplanted into any city and their chants would still work fine by just changing the odd line here and there.

It was no different in Santa Barbara, but with students coming from all over the country and obviously watching MLS games, all the songs you’d expect were in there (“St Pauli”, “You’re Not Going To Make It”, “Tonight”) and also what we’d class as some team specific ones such as RSL’s “Believe” and the Timbers Army’s “Tetris” tune.

A few originals in there too mind, and a lot of humour with chants like “our girls are hotter” and my particular favourite, “Give me an O. Give me an R. Give me a G. Give me a Y. What does that spell? Teamwork!”.

As I said earlier. I felt right at home!

Santa Barbara Gauchos 32There is also a poncho clad band off to the left of the bulk of the students (dressed in traditional Argentinian cowboy gaucho garb), and they worked well after the goals, but I could definitely have done without the older guy playing the steel drum which constantly didn’t work with the chants being sung, in either sound or timing.

The sea of yellow is very visually empowering and the students stand throughout, although do all sit down en masse at half time, which is a tradition but does make it a bit of a pain to move around!

It was definitely two different kind of atmospheres from the games I was at.

The first one against Yale was before a lot of the freshers had even made it to the university. The crowd was still strong at 3,073, an attendance most NCAA sides would love to have on a semi regular basis, and they witnessed an entertaining 3-1 win for the Gauchos.

The atmosphere was a bit flatter, but a lot of fun and with the smaller group of students in attendance to the game three days later, it had an old Swangard feel to it with the banter and chants (if you’re a Caps fan from the old D2 days, you’ll know what I’m getting at). That might explain why the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” was sung at one stage. Although probably not. Not sure anything can explain that one.

The other game against New Mexico saw a packed student section (as you’ll see from the photo at the top of this piece) and a crowd of 3,147, including several Lobos fans.

I spent the Yale game and the first half of the New Mexico one in amongst the students and the second have of the Lobos match sitting with Ben McKendry’s dad and cheering them on to a 1-0 win, with the winning goal coming with just 12 seconds remaining.

Santa Barbara Tortilla Toss binThere’s also one other special element of matchday – the famous tortilla toss.

The throwing of tortillas originally began amongst Gauchos basketball fans in the early 90’s to celebrate victories. The tradition was banned later in the decade after a series of incidents, including one where the team was penalised two points for a technical foul because of some premature tossing. They narrowly held on for the win.

The tradition was revived by the Gauchos soccer fans in 2004 and I loved it! It was something so different and unique. Hard to find in soccer these days!

What really tickled me most about it all though was heading out of the stadium behind a woman pulling a big yellow bin marked “tortillas only” and resplendent with a picture of tortillas!

Thankfully the Gauchos scored three times in the Yale game, so I got to see the tradition in full flow, or should that be full fling? They’re tossed for goals scored.

Having had no idea about it before I went to the game, it did clear up my bemusement as to why all those around me had packets of tortillas with them! I felt left out. And hungry.

Anyway, see it for yourself as we captured the Gauchos’ second goal against Yale from Nick DePuy and the celebrations afterwards, tortillas, chanting and all. Gives you a good taste of the fun at Harder Stadium as well:

The Gauchos class of 2013 had a good season, winning the Big West North conference. They were ranked as high as third (I think) in the national rankings at one point and finished ranked tenth, and but for an unfortunate sixth minute sending off in their second round tournament match up with Penn State, which they went on to lose 1-0 to a late goal, it would have been interesting to see how the team would have progressed.

There are a number of impressive seniors coming out of the squad this year and most, if not all, of them are likely to be picked up in the forthcoming MLS SuperDraft.

The highest ranked would seem to be Ghanaian midfielder Fifi Baiden, although not really sure why. He didn’t really impress me much in the two games I saw live or the many highlights I’ve watched, and was the man sent off early in their postseason loss, but has been considered by some to be a key player for the Gauchos these past couple of years. The Caps seem to like Ghanaian midfielders, and although Baiden may go in the first round, I can’t see him ending up in Vancouver. There’s better midfielders in the draft in my opinion anyway.

Campion and BoyokoA Gauchos midfielder who did impress me though was Frenchman Goffin Boyoko, and he led the team with 8 goals, including five game winners. Skillful and not afraid to put himself about, he linked up well with his countryman Achille Campion, who added 7 goals himself in 14 starts and looked very much a mature striker who could certainly make the cut in MLS.

I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen of Campion, even going as far as putting some at the Caps on to him as one to watch. He could go in the second round, but more likely third, although not sure of whether he would qualify as a domestic, so that may put some teams off.

There’s a couple of strong central defenders in their senior ranks too. German Peter Schmetz could go in one of the first two rounds and has been an impressive presence for the Gauchos, when he has been able to play. He suffered a number of injuries the last two years, so he’d fit right in with the Whitecaps! Missed the end of this season due to a knee injury and played most of it with a cast on his arm after injuring his hand in the first game of the year, but that didn’t stop him being named Conference Defender of the Year.

Daniel Welsh was the guy to step up and shine after Schmetz’s injury and I’d like to see him get a chance, if for no other reason than he’s a Scot from Fife!

So that’s our ‘Groundhopping’ guide to Santa Barbara.

If you’re down in the that neck of the woods, it’s well worth checking out some of their games. These were actually my first ever NCAA Div 1 games, although I’ve seen more since, and was impressed by both the quality of talent on display and atmosphere at Harder Stadium. Head coach Tim Vom Steeg, who has been at the helm since 1999, has certainly put together a strong program on the pitch and the Gauchos’ administrators a strong support off it.

As we said, Santa Barbara is a beautiful city and with some exciting football to watch, why would you not want to add it to your ‘Groundhopping’ list?!

Unleash your loco and toss those tortillas.

[You can see all our photos of our Groundhopping trips to Santa Barbara on our Flickr, but here’s a few more of our favourites below]

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Santa Barbara Gauchos 01

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Authored by: Michael McColl

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