Soccer season kicks off with UCSB-Westmont game

The 2010 men’s college soccer season in Santa Barbara ended last December with Akron celebrating a win over Louisville in the NCAA College Cup national championship game at UCSB’s Harder Stadium.

The 2011 season kicks off Saturday at Harder Stadium with the Bryant & Sons Cup, the Santa Barbara derby that pits UCSB against Westmont. The exhibition match kicks off at 7 p.m.

While UCSB has dominated the series for the last 10 years, the game is usually an entertaining affair. After days of practicing against themselves, the players are excited to go up against another team and play in front of a crowd.

With a highest preseason national ranking of ninth, the Gauchos enter the game with plenty of firepower, led by forwards Sam Garza and David Opoku and midfielder Luis Silva, the top three scorers from last year’s Big West Tournament championship team. Garza, a junior, was recently named to the Hermann Trophy watch list; Opoku, a sophomore, spent part of the offseason training with Ghana’s Under-23 national team; Silva, a three-time All-Big West selection, is healthy, fit and ready for a big senior season as the team’s “No. 10 player” in the middle.

Returnee Michael Nonni and Dom Sarle, a transfer from St. John’s, bolster the atttack.

The center of the defense is where UCSB has a hole to fill. Senior Tim Pontius has paid his dues in the program and is one of the players UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg will be looking at to take ownership of the position that was handled by Michael Boxall for the last three years. (Boxall is now playing in the MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps.) The other players in the hunt all have college experience: Mathew Glodack is a transfer from Southern Connecticut, Peter Schmetz comes over from Westmont, and Juan Gomez transfers in from L.A. Mission Community College.

At goalkeeper, the Gauchos are going with German-born André Grandt, a 23-year-old transfer from Tyler JC in Texas, where he won back-to-back national junior college titles with undefeated records.

Westmont has seven returning starters off a team that went 9-4-5 last year, finished tied for fifth in the Golden State Athletic Conference and made the conference tournament.

Leading the Warriors’ attack is sophomore midfielder Nana Akyen, a native of Ghana, who, like Gaucho senior Waid Ibrahim, prepped at Dunn School. He had five goals and five assists last year and was named to the All-GSAC team as a freshman.

“We still want to feature him, but we don’t want him to feel the burden of all of our attacking movements,” Westmont coach Dave Wolf said. “Last year, we didn’t do a very good job of that. We have a couple of other guys who can take the heat off him.”

Senior forward Doug Harrell is a player who’s developed a good on-field rapport with Akyen. He scored seven goals and earned All-GSAC honors last year.

“Both of them are good attacking players. The thing I’ve seen more of this year is they’re pretty connected right now. They’re players that think in the same way and see the game in the same way. They’ve developed a chemistry between them,” said Wolf.

The Warriors are counting on newcomers Jordan Correa and Will Bobo to provide added offensive punch from the midfield. Correa, a senior who plays on the wing, has college experience, having played previously at Concordia in Oregon. Bobo is a talented freshman from Foothill High in Orange County.

On defense, Westmont returns Matt McNabb at goalkeeper and Zach George and Marcos Lopez on the backline. Lopez is switching to a centerback position and will play alongside Cameron Bechler, who sat out last season with a shoulder injury.

“I’m anxious to see how the partnership works,” said Wolf.

While he knows his team will be overmatched agaisnt the Division 1 Gauchos, Wolf said the game is a good gauge of how players handle and respond under pressure.

“It’s a game where you hope to get a clear idea on who you are and what you have,” he said.

“After 10 days of practice, they can’t possibly be prepared for what’s going to come at them, and we get that … we’re not naive,” he added. “We feel pretty solid about the things that we are doing well right now and we hope we can demonstrate that a little bit (Saturday night) and build on that.”