August 4, 1998
A team that will start five players with just one year's playing experience would not usually be considered an experienced squad. But there's nothing like a national championship to season a young team. After their improbable and inspiring run to the 1997 NCAA title, the 1998 Bruins are hoping to use that experience and gained confidence to repeat as national champions.
UCLA head coach Sigi Schmid's 1998 squad is young in years but a veteran team in experience. The Bruins return seven players - just two of whom are seniors - who started in the 1997 Final Four, including Final Four Offensive MVP Seth George and All-Tournament selections Carlos Bocanegra, Tom Poltl and McKinley Tennyson, Jr. Four others saw action in the title game.
"The team has improved from last year just because the young players have a lot more experience. They have the confidence of winning a national title," said Schmid, last season's NSCAA Coach of the Year. "The knowledge of knowing what it takes to win a title is invaluable."
And many of those who don't have the championship game experience make up for it with international experience. Freshman midfielder Ryan Futagaki and sophomore goalkeeper Nick Rimando have played with various U.S. Youth National teams and are currently with the Schmid-coached U-20s, along with Bocanegra, Tennyson and Shaun Tsakiris.
Two others who did not play in the title game due to injuries were junior midfielders Sasha Victorine and Pete Vagenas. It was their absence in the tournament that made UCLA's title run so improbable. Imagine the damage UCLA will do WITH their return. The prospects look daunting for the opposition. Victorine before his ACL injury in September was one of 10 nominees for the Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year Award, and Vagenas was a first-team All-MPSF selection when he filled in for Victorine prior to his injury in the NCAA quarterfinals. The duo honed their skills at the adidas summer league this summer, along with sophomore Ryan Lee and junior Steve Shak.
No one will be happier to see Victorine and Vagenas back more than striker George, who will likely benefit most from their return and, in particular, their ability to set him up for a goal. George, last year's Final Four Offensive MVP and an NSCAA second-team All-American, scored 16 goals and 42 points in 1997. Twelve more goals in 1998 will move him into UCLA's Top 5 list in career goals. Also looking to benefit will be forwards Tennyson (8 goals, 23 points) and Martin Bruno (11 goals, 25 points off the bench).
Like last year's national championship team, the 1998 Bruins, according to Schmid, are a "very well-balanced team." If depth and balance were the key to last year's title, things are looking good for a repeat.
All three of UCLA's top scorers from a year ago return, led by 16-goal scorer and Player of the Year candidate Seth George. The senior All-American is a pure goal scorer who has also proven to be a good passer, tallying a team-high 10 assists last year.
Playing alongside George will be sophomore McKinley Tennyson, Jr., who scored the game-winning goal in sudden death overtime in the NCAA Semifinals. Tennyson, a big, strong forward, totaled eight goals and seven assists in his rookie campaign.
Also returning is junior Martin Bruno, UCLA's Super Sub last year. Bruno scored 11 goals and 25 points off the bench in 1997 and could follow in George's footsteps (George was UCLA's Super Sub in 1996) and gain a starting spot.
Shea Travis looks to come back strong for his junior year. "Shea had a great spring, scoring goals and using his dribbling ability to regain his form from his freshman year," said Schmid.
Freshman Sean Walker will also be available. Walker scored 27 goals and 15 assists last year at Rockhurst HS and was an NSCAA honorable mention All- American at Jesuit HS in Sacramento his junior year. Said Schmid, "He has good speed and is going to be knocking on the door to get himself on the field."
Central midfield is UCLA's strongest, deepest and most experienced position, with seven quality players battling for three positions. Four of those six (Sasha Victorine, Tom Poltl, Shaun Tsakiris and Ryan Futagaki) have played with U.S. youth national teams, and one of them (Pete Vagenas) was UCLA's co-MVP last year.
Victorine is considered to be one of the finest playmakers in the nation. Prior to his ACL injury in September, he had been picked as one of 10 finalists for the Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year Award. He is fully recovered from the injury and is expected to regain his leadership duties. As a freshman in 1996, he earned first-team all-conference and second-team All-Far West honors despite playing with a separated shoulder the entire season.
Poltl played with Victorine in the 1997 U.S. Under-20 World Cup and last year earned second-team All-Far West honors. Poltl is a tough, scrappy player whose intensity more than makes up for his size (5-6). He scored four goals and three assists a year ago.
Tsakiris has a dangerous free kick and is dangerous from the left side of the field. His passing skills are strong, as evidenced by his five assists in 1997.
Freshman Futagaki is another speedy player who will make an immediate impact as a rookie. He earned All-CIF honors twice at Fountain Valley HS and has played with the U.S. Under-17 and Under-20 National Teams. Futagaki totaled 29 goals and 18 assists in his last two years at Fountain Valley.
Vagenas had a breakthrough season in 1997. He stepped into a difficult situation, filling in for a Player of the Year candidate, and made a name for himself. As playmaker, Vagenas set up most of the scoring plays and assisted on eight goals.
Sophomore Caleb Westbay saw action in just three games last year but could see more playing time in 1998.
Returning for his senior season is Junior Gonzalez. Said Schmid, "His maturity will be valuable to such a young team."
Finding a spot in the lineup for all seven could be difficult, but it's a challenge most coaches would envy. Luckily, these players have versatility, and Schmid can play Poltl and Futagaki wide if necessary and can also bring in George or Bruno from the forward position.
There is a little bit more concern from the outside areas of midfield, but Schmid has several options. On the right, Schmid may use Ryan Lee, Bruno or Poltl, and on the right, Futagaki, Travis or Nick Paneno.
Lee finished his freshman season in style, starting in the last eight games of the year. He was impressive in his defending at the NCAA Final Four and assisted on the winning goal in the semifinals. "Ryan has great speed and a good work rate," said Schmid. "He opens gaps for other players through his speed."
Paneno had a solid season last year, earning honorable mention all-conference honors. He proved to be an important scorer, with both of his goals being game- winners. He also assisted on two game-winning goals.
Said Schmid, "We have some depth there. What we need to get out of our wide players is more consistency and a good ability to get balls across and swing balls over."
UCLA loses the most depth in defense with the graduation of Kevin Coye, Jimmy Conrad and Danny Sparks. But returning from the starting lineup are All-Freshman selection Carlos Bocanegra and all-conference selection Steve Shak, who are two of the finest young defenders in the nation.
Bocanegra earned first-team All-MPSF honors as a rookie and also made his way onto the Final Four All-Tournament team with his strong defensive play. He is extremely effective on both sides of the field and scored five goals in 1997 on just 11 shots on goal.
In his first year of play, Shak became one of the true surprises in college soccer. A walk-on who did not even play as a freshman, Shak earned a regular spot in the starting lineup in the sweeper position and has played his way onto the U.S. Under-23 National Team.
Replacing Coye as a man-marker will be a challenge. There will be opportunities here for junior Craig Hart, senior David Kurtz-Reyes and Cal Poly San Luis Obsipo transfer Brandon Kay to break into the lineup. Lee may also be used in this capacity.
Sophomore Nick Rimando is expected to replace Final Four Defensive MVP Matt Reis in goal. Rimando was outstanding in his seven games and five starts last year, allowing just one goal in 485 minutes (0.19 GAA) and earning honorable mention all-conference honors despite his limited playing time. "When he came in and played last year, he was very solid, and his goals against average was good," said Schmid. "He is also a very good organizer, which is very important." Rimando's quickness and fearlessness will be tremendous assets for the Bruins.
Backing Rimando up will be sophomore Kevin Perrault, who shared shutouts in two of his three appearances last year. Perrault is a big keeper with good range who in 1996 set the CIF single-season record for shutouts (24) at Peninsula HS. UNLV transfer Todd Abdalla will also battle for playing time. The sophomore from Trabuco Hills was the backup at UNLV last year to his older brother Dan. Todd totaled two shutouts in 1997 with a 2.29 GAA in 196 minutes.
UCLA's most eagerly anticipated match-up will come Nov. 1 when they meet up with Indiana in the UCLA Pacific Soccer Classic, presented by Carl's Jr. "The Indiana rematch of the NCAA semifinals in 1994 and 1997 is definitely something everyone should be looking forward to - I know we are," said Schmid.
With the MPSF a single division league, UCLA will have to face tough Stanford, California and Washington squads during the regular season. Those three teams have won the MPSF Mountain Division in the past, most recently Stanford last year.
Each game will be a challenge, and no opponent will be taken lightly. "Everyone is always motivated for UCLA," said Schmid. "Now they will be extremely motivated for UCLA as defending champions. We're going to have to be ready for every game because every game is going to be a challenge. We're going to make everyone's season if they can knock us off. So we're going to have to be stronger mentally than we were last year and more committed right from the beginning than we were last year. But we can play with the knowledge that we are champions and that we know what it takes to be a champion."