UCI Getting Defensive
UC Irvine Men’s Soccer Head Coach George Kuntz has led UCI to two consecutive Big West championships and two NCAA tournament berths over the past two seasons. If early season success is any indication, the 2010 ’Eaters may have even greater things in store for them.
Off to a boiling hot start with a 5-1 record and an eighth place ranking in the nation, UCI has only allowed two goals in their first six games. Led by senior strikers Amani Walker and Spencer Thompson, and one of the best keepers in the nation Andrew Fontein, UC Irvine looks to record another prolific season this fall.
“We are only going to be as good as the new guys coming in,” Coach Kuntz said. “Since the spring, our juniors and seniors have led by example on and off the field. Everything counts and [our new players] have embraced that attitude. This group has gone through excruciating, tough experiences and is overall more even-keeled than any other group we have had.”
Entering Sunday’s game the Anteaters were first in the country in goals allowed, shutout percentage, win-loss record and save percentage. These impressive defensive statistics are supplemented with an average of 2.6 goals scored per game, good for 21st in the country. Fontein leads the nation in goals against average and save percentage. Walker and Thompson each lead the team with three goals apiece this season, and junior midfielder Miguel Ibarra leads the team with three assists.
This hot start has not been against weak competition either. The ’Eaters have played a decent non-conference schedule, including an exhibition with 25th ranked Cal, Big 10 Conference member Wisconsin, Loyola (Chicago), Santa Clara and Gonzaga.
However, the more important test will come in conference play when they travel to UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. Coach Kuntz will rely on his team’s experience from years past in order to win the Big West and, hopefully, the national championship.
“Our team is a little deeper this year. [Last year] it was a little different because we relied on one guy a little bit more,” Kuntz said. “Now, it’s harder to concentrate on one guy because there are so many different weapons and players can do different things.”
Some of the early success can be attributed to the tremendous recruiting effort by Kuntz and his staff. Irvine boasted a four-star recruiting class including junior college transfers Bello Alhassan, Christian Hernandez and Miguel Ibarra. The ’Eaters also added freshmen phenoms Marco Franco, Christopher Santana and Joel vom Dorp from Sweden to complement this deep and talented squad.
Kuntz believes the “piano carriers” of the team deserve much of the credit for this season’s undefeated start. Seniors Corey Attaway and Gray Bailey are the “anchors” of the squad whose experience on the pitch has attributed to tremendous chemistry among the players.
“These players do much of the dirty work who may not be at the top of the stat sheets,” Kuntz said. “Corey has been underrepresented in the voting and has been a big part of what we do. Joel Bagby has been over and above what everyone expected when he walked on. Everett Pitts has blossomed and is highly regarded as a defender. Pretty much our back four defenders are solid.”
As Kuntz mentioned, the ’Eater defense is one of the most solid units in the country led by the cornerstone Andrew Fontein who trained in Sweden over the summer.
“[Fontein] came back with more confidence in his play. He has always been a calm player, but his confidence helps confirm what is right,” Kuntz said.
Kuntz believes confidence is an important factor at this level of play for his team to do well in the upcoming season.
“Mentally, players make less mistakes and are less insecure when they are on the field,” Kuntz said.
Coupled with mental toughness, Kuntz created a competitive environment for his team during training sessions to prepare them for game-time situations.
“The players walk into a game and find the practices more competitive than a game,” Kuntz said. “They better themselves and help our team make the games easier. We have got something good going, and we try to make it a competitive situation every time we train.”
The ’Eaters suffered their first loss on Sept. 19 against Sacramento State. The Hornets scored, putting the ball in the net in the fifth minute. Sac State added another goal early in the second half, sealing the victory.
The Anteaters will travel to Las Vegas to face Cal State Bakersfield and UNLV before opening conference play with UC Riverside Sept. 29, 7 p.m. at Anteater Stadium.