UCI Soccer: The Final Grade
The 2011 men’s college soccer season will not end the way UC Irvine wanted it to end. Although the Anteaters weren’t snubbed from the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, they ended 2011 with a bitter taste in their mouths. The 2-1 upset loss to St. Mary’s showed that the ’Eaters had several major flaws that were destined to be exposed.
Then and Now: The Anteaters lost quite a bit of production to graduation last June, but fresh talent stepped up. Seniors last season accounted for 39 of the 46 goals, including 10 out of 14 game-winners. In 2011, seniors Miguel Ibarra and Christian Hernandez stepped up, scoring nine and seven goals, respectively. The team scored 45 goals this season, including 16 game-winners.
Overall Weakness: The ’Eaters dominated when the other team allowed them to dictate the game. When opponents struggled to keep pace with UCI, the Anteaters won. When opponents were able to clog the middle of the field and deny the midfielders space, UCI had issues.
The Anteaters failed to play their game against well-organized defenses, often leading to desperate long passes to freshman forward Lester Hayes III and forced crosses from the wing. When other teams were able to disrupt UCI’s short passes, games were unwinnable for Irvine.
Schedule: UCI organized a tough schedule to get more national attention from the NCAA selection committee, leading to more interstate road trips. Travel to South Florida and Creighton took a heavy toll on the student athletes as they showed signs of lethargy towards the end of the season. Several players battled minor, nagging injuries.
Although the tough schedule helped UCI maintain their top-10 ranking and earn a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly took a toll on the team.
Midfield: This season’s team had one of the most dominant and technical midfields since 2006, when alumni Brad Evans (now playing for Seattle Sounders) served as the creative force for UCI’s possessions. Ibarra, Hernandez and sophomores Christopher Santana and Enrique Cardenas combined to create a dynamic midfield. Their passes and technical dribbling exposed opposing defenses and created golden opportunities for goals. The four accounted for 26 goals and 26 assists.
The players also adjusted well to new formations when Kuntz shifted players.
Senior Jimmy Turner and Sophomore Tarek Morad were excellent ball winners, anchoring the back midfield. While Turner was a reliable captain, commanding the defense and allowing the attacking midfielders to put more focus on attack, Morad helped the ’Eaters maintain possession. In his second year, Morad developed composure with the ball and was unfazed when covered by multiple defenders.
The midfield struggled consistently in the air. Attacking midfielders frequently lost possession against defenses on long passes.
Ibarra could have scored a lot more goals this season if it weren’t for his decision-making in the penalty box. Ibarra is a skilled dribbler from the wings, but his instinctual pass-first mentality when inside the penalty box often led to missed shot opportunities.
Too Young: The midfielders accounted for scoring more than half of the team’s goals, which was caused by the forwards’ inabilities to produce. The three top producing forwards were all freshmen. Had they been more experienced, the team would have likely scored more often.
Hayes, who scored four goals this season, was dangerous in dead ball situations. But on the ball, he struggled. Hayes frequently lost possession of the ball immediately after his first touch. That needs to improve and Hayes needs to improve his speed if he wants to expand his role from a typical target man to a complete striker.
Each of freshman Cameron Iwasa’s three goals came towards the end of the season. Quick, strong and technically gifted, Iwasa’s development is crucial to the team’s future success.
Scoring only two goals this season, freshman Juan Gutierrez missed the first half of the season due to injury. He hasn’t hit his peak just yet, but next season UCI could be in for a treat. In case you might’ve forgotten, he was the NSCAA High School Player of the Year.
Up in the Air: Although UCI had four men in the back, they often played like three as sophomore Marco Franco often worked the ball up the field from the right wing with his speed and fancy footwork. Franco helped the attack and distributed six assists, but his offensive style often left a hole in the right side of the box. Fortunately, junior center back Everett Pitts had the speed to cover the open ground and frustrate opposing forwards on the counter attack.
Senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein was one of the best goalkeepers in UCI’s history, finishing the season with nine shutouts and a 1.00 goals-against average. But his numbers don’t show how much of an influence he had on the team. His composure was key and helped UCI continue to play their game — even when trailing with limited time.
The defense’s key weakness was exposed in a game that truly mattered. They relied on speed to mark opponents rather than physically sticking them. It gave opponents like St. Mary many open shots from the edge of the box, pushing Fontein to be more aggressive or make diving stabs at shot attempts.
The Anteaters held their breath whenever a ball was launched into their box. In the NCAA match against St. Mary’s, the Anteaters failed to clear the ball three times on one play, which consequently gave their opponent the opportunity to score the game-winning goal.
Hopefully, Pitts and sophomore Shaun Marcum work out the kinks before next season.
Final Grade: I’d give this season a B. UCI showed a lot of promise and was entertaining, outplaying opposing midfields with their creative attacks and spectacular dribbles. But as the season wore on, the Anteaters couldn’t keep it together.
It just goes to show that regardless of how entertaining a team plays, none of it truly matters when expectations aren’t met.