Rodney Michael’s selection to the College Soccer News’ Preseason All-America Third Team on Wednesday trumpets a banner year for UCSB, but a lot still must play out before the first whistle.
“Obviously, if we have all of the players available to us, we will be a hard team to beat,” coach Tim Vom Steeg said.
But the delay caused by COVID-19 is making that a big if.
The NCAA has postponed the start of its fall soccer season, with one proposal listing a Feb. 3 start date and a May College Cup. That puts NCAA soccer in direct conflict with professional soccer in the U.S., which resumes their seasons in late January and early February.
“The NCAA will be making a decision on the specifics of a spring season within the next two weeks,” Vom Steeg pointed out. “We are all hoping that by February, we have figured out a way to beat this disease so we can return to games at Harder with fans in attendance to watch this team play.”
Michael, a senior forward who already ranks 10th in UCSB’s record books with 61 career points (23 goals, 15 assists), is high on the draft lists of many Major League Soccer teams. The former Dunn School star from Sierra Leone made last year’s Top Drawer Soccer All-America Second Team, as well as his third-straight All-Big West Conference First Team, after leading the 15-5-1 Gauchos to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament.
But the tenuous situation in college soccer could cost the Gauchos Michael as well as several other stars. They include sophomore forward Finn Ballard McBride, a nine-goal scorer last season; junior goalkeeper Ben Roach, whose 12 shutouts last year rank third all-time at UCSB; and even Vom Steeg’s own son Carson, a senior midfielder who is returning from knee surgery.
“Rodney finished last year as one of the best forwards in the country… Going into this year he could be the very best by the time the year is over,” coach Vom Steeg said. “Finn returns as the conference freshman player of the year and, between him and Rodney, we could score a lot of goals.
“Carson is fully recovered and we just have to hope that he can stay injury-free. He would be the best defender in the conference. Ben would return as the best goalie in the conference.
“But they will have to make decisions regarding their future plans with the fall being moved to spring.”
A proposal to keep the MLS Draft in January but delay the entry of collegiate draftees could help mitigate the problem, however.
“So instead of having a player be the 28th player on the roster, they can go get games in college,” Vom Steeg said.
The return of Carson Vom Steeg and sophomore defender Lucas Gonzalez will also help UCSB compensate for the graduation of last year’s 11 seniors. Senior midfielder Kaya Fabretti and senior defender Will Gillingham return as starters, and senior forward Derek Kryzda and junior midfielder Sam Fletcher had made last year’s starting lineup by the time UCSB made its long playoff run.
The COVID-19 delay could also provide the silver lining of additional training for international recruits who will start arriving at UCSB on Oct. 1. They include freshman Fabian Bostrum from Denmark and junior Thaabit Baartman, a transfer from Texas’ Tyler Junior College.
“Both of these players will add to an already good returning group of attacking players of Rodney, Finn, Ameyawu Muntari and Carter Clemmensen,” Vom Steeg said.
“Our roster is the largest we have ever had,” he added. “When we thought we were going to have to play through corona, we knew we might need a bigger roster.”
Several of his high school recruits also might have gone pro if not for the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.
“We will need the fall to sort out these many incoming players, and now with COVID that is going to happen,” Vom Steeg said.