Behind the Scenes: Men’s Soccer

Let’s take a moment to talk about the magic that is soccer. The game, the players, the structure, the field, the crowd, the feel; if you’re a fan, everything about soccer simply lifts you.

The 90 minute play of these athletes makes your heart race, keeps you on edge throughout the game, and when they really perform, makes you fall in love with the game just a little bit more.

So much goes on during a game. Each player’s individual performance, along with their cumulative effort as a team, brings each of them and the team as a whole its fair share of fame and credit.

However, what people often forget is the work these phenomenal athletes put in to their game outside of the 90 minute match. Practice is just as important as the game. It’s what builds team character and where they acquire their technique, skill and endurance. Through practice, they learn decision-making skills and push themselves to exceed their limits; for all these characteristics combined are to be put to use during the season.

UC Irvine’s men’s soccer team recently won the Big West Championships. As they make their way into the NCAA tournament, their mental and physical preparation is key to a successful post-season.

“We’re just trying to stay calm, have fun, stay focused and keep the same competitive edge at practice. The ultimate goal is the NCAA title and it starts this weekend,”  Enrique Cardenas said.

Practices are altered in accordance to the team’s standing in the season, ensuring that at this point into the season the athletes are executing the proper exercises, freshening up on the basics, and making sure not to exhaust themselves to a degree where they won’t be able to perform effectively during a game.

“Mentally [and] physically they’re trying to get themselves back. The guys are beat up. We’re trying to get them fresh and keep them sharp; and that’s key not to get them warn down,”  Coach George Kuntz said.

“We want to approach every game the same. Every game is important to us,”  Marco Franco said after practice. “The big thing too is saving our legs; we don’t want to get too burned out or go too hard during practice [this advanced into the season],” he continued.

A few tactics were aimed to be accomplished during practice prior to the second round of the NCAA tournament against North Carolina.

“One, defense; we still want to be able to defend. We want our guys to pressure more [during the upcoming game],”  Coach Kuntz said. “Second, we still want to be going to goal, because we think that’s one of our strengths,” he continued.

Play strong defense and strong offense; quite a simple plan, right?

Earlier in the season, practices for the Anteaters focused mainly on affirming technique, enhancing skill, and improving footwork. With new players on the team, practices also comprised of building teamwork, trust and learning how to apply their chemistry as a whole toward their performance on the field. At this point in the season, the players go back to the basics, focusing on their organization and tactility.

“We do a lot less fitness; more just technical stuff on the ball, position ourselves for the games, [and] save our legs. We get in and out of practice in an hour and half instead of two hours,” Lester Hayes III explained.

“Ultimately, we don’t have control over what the coaches make us do, but it’s a matter of being more efficient rather than just completely exerting yourself out there. And it’s hard for all of us because we’re super competitive. It’s being mentally strong and being efficient, trying to get yourself in better positions rather than completely just running around,”  Keeykeh Cardenas said. “Efficiency is key this time in the season rather than complete exertion.”

Coach Kuntz explained that execution of the play is something more focused on this advanced in the season

“When you get opportunities to score beginning of the season, you might let something like that go. Here, when you have a chance to score, you’re making the most of a finishing opportunity,” he said.

“Speed of play and speed of thought.”

The ’Eaters have had an incredible journey so far; but it’s only the beginning. Their hard work, perseverance, diligence, charisma and passion for the game builds up during the time they put in outside of a match.