Men’s Soccer is No. 5 in the Nation and Just Getting Started

The UC Irvine men’s soccer team is riding a historic run this season, starting off with a 7-1-0 record for the first time in school history. Since the beginning of the season, the team has also climbed 12 spots in the national rankings to move from 17th to 5th as of Sept. 18. It’s the highest ranking in program history, breaking the previous record set by the 2010 and 2006 teams, both of which ranked as high as seventh.

With the team exceeding expectations, Coach George Kuntz’s squad is making sure a selection committee doesn’t have the chance to snub them for a second straight season. So why has this hot start suddenly vaulted the Anteaters to the top of the rankings? What makes them different from last year’s 14-3-3 team?

Before the season began, Coach Kuntz explained that due to the lack of large physical players on the attacking half, this season’s team would rely on a possession game that utilizes many short passes and technical movements to put the ball in the back of the net. Unlike last season’s team whose two top scorers, John Thompson and Amani Walker, were around 6 feet tall, this year’s tallest scorers, Christian Hernandez and Enrique Cardenas, are 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 6 inches respectively. Despite the lack of size on this year’s team, Coach Kuntz has adapted well to the changes and developed a highly effective style of soccer.

UCI’s ability to dominate possession and keep the ball on the ground with short, penetrating passes has become the trademark of this year’s squad. Kuntz’s players constantly lose their markers to receive open passes. The midfield, led by Miguel Ibarra, has done a brilliant job distributing the ball and finding their forwards to give them a chance at goal. UCI’s aggression toward a goal has resulted in the team outshooting opponents 136 to 59, with 64 of those 136 shots being on-goal. On average, UCI has taken an estimate of 19.4 shots per game while holding their opposition to just 8.4.

The defensive half has improved since the first game of the season. Everett Pitts and Jimmy Turner have been relying heavily on speed to prevent the opposition from getting quality looks at the goal. The Anteaters have shown gradual improvement and are looking more complete as the defense has managed to allow an average of 0.95 goals per game.

Standing in the pinnacle of college soccer is unfamiliar territory for the Anteaters, but the amount of attention the team has grabbed won’t serve as a distraction or a motivation. The painful exclusion from last year’s tournament is still the driving factor for this team and is likely why the team is not and will never be content with their results. Last season the team finished 11th in the nation and was shockingly excluded from the NCAA Tournament. But for the Anteaters, a fifth-place ranking isn’t a guarantee and they’re not making any assumptions.

Road victories over Wisconsin (2-0 2 OT) and the University of Illinois (4-2) have defined UCI’s stunning start to the season. The team survived a road trip that featured two games in two different states in one weekend..

Facing Wisconsin and Illinois’   demanding style of play mixed with jetlag didn’t overwhelm the Anteaters. Their offseason conditioning paid off and has given them strength to endure tough games — physically and mentally.

Standing at the top of the Big West Conference, which features No. 6 UC Santa Barbara, UCI has a tough road ahead of them. They also have No. 3 Creighton on the horizon. Creighton currently holds a perfect record and holds a six-game shutout streak. The game against Creighton will serve as a determining factor as to whether UCI’s high-octane offense can take down one of the nation’s best defenses. A victory over a team like Creighton would say a lot about the Anteaters’ chances of making a 2011 NCAA Tournament run.

With more than half of the season left, UCI still has room to improve. The offense can still find ways to take advantage of opposing defenses. Goalkeeper Andrew Fontein and the defense also still has room to work with. The team is already a head above a majority of their competition, but that does not mean that there’s no room for improvement.

The big question that must be raised is not whether this is the best team UCI has ever fielded, but how long can UCI keep playing at this pace? As seen in European soccer leagues, teams that love to play ground possession games like Arsenal and Ajax FC  (with the exception of FC Barcelona) have notoriously shown signs of fatigue towards the end of the season, displaying lethargic play on the field and significantly dropping their goal production UCI’s conditioning was at the limit in the 2-0 loss against University of South Florida as the team’s physical (and possibly mental) fatigue resulted in missed opportunities and forced shots.

However, this loss shouldn’t be an alarm for Anteater fans since this game was their fourth straight away game in an otherwise tough road schedule. With the next two games at home, UCI won’t have to deal with travel and will play mentally and physically refreshed.

It is too early to tell if this is the best soccer team UCI has ever fielded, but there is no denying that this team is already in consideration. With several big challenges ahead, their streak will be put to the test early and often.