Kicking Back with a Vengeance

Last season, the UC Irvine Men’s Soccer team finished 14-3-3.  Despite winning the Big West regular season championship and boasting an offense that ranked sixth nationally (2.3 goals per game) and  ninth on defense (0.63 goals against average), the Anteaters failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Head Coach George Kuntz is determined to make UCI soccer stand out more than their national ranking (17th in the nation) and ensure that they  qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

UCI lost several key players to graduation, including the highly touted physically striking duo, Amani Walker and Spencer Thompson, who had a combined 17 goals last season.  Gone is Corey Attaway, the Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year whose physical presence helped the team retain possession from the defensive half of the field.  Kyle Schmid was another key anchor for the backline that has set sail to the professional ranks in the NASL.

Despite these losses, Kuntz has a strong reason to believe that the 2011 squad will bounce back.

Senior Miguel Ibarra  provided 10 assists last season and will control the flow of the offense to create chances from the attacking midfield position. A starter in six games last season, senior Christian Hernandez should earn more playing time and help on the attack. Speedy senior Syd Tom has  drawn attention throughout the preseason and might be paired up with promising sophomore Christopher Santana.

Seniors Jimmy Turner, Jonathan Rivas and Everett Pitts will  control the defense along with sophomore Marco Franco. In the box, senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein will offer his veteran leadership and presence in his fourth and final season at UCI. Fontein’s ability to remain calm and keep his emotions in check  allows for him to keep the backline focused. Also expect several of the freshmen to be baptized on the field, including Cameron Iwasa and Memo Licona.

“We had six guys who were either drafted or signed professional contracts from last year’s team,” Kuntz said. “That will tell you that we are losing experienced players who scored quite a few goals for us. At the same time, there were [younger] guys who were scoring goals in training that didn’t have the opportunity to play and were being mentored by those [older] players.”

Fans should expect a different brand of soccer from last season’s team.  Kuntz has decided to break free from the  traditional 4-4-2 formation and will play three different formations based on  the situation. But according to Kuntz, those formations will remain a secret.

However, with an offense that lacks height and physicality compared to last year’s team, UCI will rely on their mobility. Kuntz plans to create a more direct offense that will keep the ball on the ground and establish strong technical and dynamic possession.

Using speed as their weapon, a majority of the players are considered potential weapons on the offense because of their ability to lose their markers and get open for a pass or a shot on goal. Conditioning is crucial if UCI hopes to maintain this style of play.

This season, the team is expected to face stiffer  competition in hopes of drawing national attention and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. The Anteaters will face 2010 NCAA Tournament qualifiers  Florida Gulf Coast and Creighton University.

“Every game is a big game. We know for a fact we only lost three games last year,” Kuntz said. “We know we have to play better. We revamped  our schedule for RPI purposes. So that hopefully will give us more RPI. I don’t know if we can match the wins and losses, but we definitely have a better schedule  and hopefully that’ll play a part in the selection committee. But we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with that. We should be concerned about the next half of the game. We should only concern ourselves with the first half.”

UCI is determined to show that they deserve a spot among the top teams in the nation.

“We have a huge chip on our shoulder from last year, a huge wound that’s still healing, so our guys know how it  hurts.”

UCI 1, USD 0

UC Irvine opened up their season with a 1-0 home victory over the University of San Diego thanks to a goal from Christian Hernandez. Although Irvine notched only one goal, Irvine dominated USD.

In the first half, the Anteaters struggled for opportunities to find the back of the net. USD’s midfielders and defenders were able to catch all the crosses and long passes that were launched by the Anteaters, using their height and strength to their advantage.

The offense was also frustrated by numerous offside calls. as Hernandez and Ibarra often found themselves breaking through the opposing side’s box unmarked for a through pass or a lob pass, only to be marked before they could touch the ball.

The Anteaters showed more life in the second half, dominating possession. UCI  kept the ball on the ground and advanced forward with short passes. The team showed hints of their full potential with their mobility, finding ways to lose their marks, which freed up passes and  shots.

USD was outshot 11-2. Irvine’s aggressiveness  paid off in the 74th minute. The USD goalkeeper was able to block a shot attempt,  but Syd Tom gained control of the ball amid a hectic scramble in the box. With a small tip toward the middle of the box, Hernandez took Tom’s pass and  muscled the ball in for a goal.

“It’s a part of soccer. If you don’t shoot you will never score,” Hernandez said after the victory over the USD Toreros. “We knew we had to go at them, shoot and keep shooting. We knew [we’d score] sooner or later. It feels good to win our first game.”