Aug. 13, 2000
LOS ANGELES - At quick glance, it would appear that the 2000 season would be a rebuilding year for the UCLA men's soccer team. But look again. After signing a superstar recruiting class, second-year head coach Todd Salda?a has every intention of showing that UCLA doesn't rebuild, it reloads.
Yes, UCLA did lose the 1999 NSCAA National Player of the Year Sasha Victorine, along with four other players who are currently playing in Major League Soccer. In all, seven starters are gone from the 1999 team that advanced to the NCAA semifinals. However, UCLA also retains the services of three players who played on the 1997 NCAA Championship team - McKinley Tennyson Jr. (12 goals, 7 assists), Shaun Tsakiris (2 goals, 13 assists) and Ryan Lee (4 goals, 3 assists) - as well as 1999 Pan Am Games bronze medalist Ryan Futagaki (3 goals, 3 assists). Tennyson was UCLA's leading goal scorer and a second-team All-MPSF forward a year ago. Tsakiris earned first-team all-conference honors, and Lee was a second-team all-conference pick.
"Our most experienced players are our three returning national championship players," said Salda?a, the 1999 NSCAA Far West Coach of the Year. "They have been winners at the college level and have also played with U.S. National Teams. These three also play in important positions - center forward, center midfielder and central defender. They will no doubt be key figures to our success."
"Ryan, Shaun and Kei (Tennyson) are now out of the shadows," Salda?a continued. "It's their turn, and they are looking forward to that."
The Bruins also gain 11 freshmen who have a combined 163 international caps between them. Four of those players - defenders Nelson Akwari and Alex Yi, goalkeeper DJ Countess and forward Adolfo Gregorio - were members of the historic 1999 U.S. U-17 National Team which carried a U.S. Soccer-record 25-game unbeaten streak and placed an all-time best fourth at the World Championships. In addition to those four players, UCLA also welcomes U-18 National Team member Cliff McKinley, plus national team pool players Matt Taylor, Leonard Griffin and Tony Lawson. Despite their youth, these Bruins are an experienced bunch.
"Because of their extensive international play, the freshmen coming in are more experienced than your average freshmen. That should help them have a shorter transition time into the college level," Salda?a said.
UCLA has the luxury of being able to field a lineup of all national team players. In all, eight players have earned youth national team caps, while seven others are part of national team pools.
With a team ripe with experience on both the international and collegiate scene, the 2000 Bruins earned a pre-season No. 3 ranking by the NSCAA and should no doubt continue UCLA's long-standing tradition of excellence.
The Bruins have tremendous depth at the forward position despite losing Victorine, who totaled 33 points last season. Leading the way will be senior McKinley Tennyson, Jr., who tied for the team lead in goals scored in 1999 with 12. In his three years at UCLA, Tennyson has scored 25 goals and 18 assists. He has a penchant for scoring big-time goals in the clutch. Case in point: of his five career game-winning goals, three have come in the NCAA tournament, including the game-winner in sudden death overtime in the 1997 NCAA semifinals. Tennyson will be looking to pick up where he left off last season and in the spring season, when he scored six goals in five games.
"Going into his final season, Kei is more mature and more experienced," said Salda?a. "He has a much greater understanding of what it takes to succeed at this level, and when you put that together with his athleticism, he is going to be hard to stop. We are looking forward to a big year from him."
Pierce played in 11 games last season, starting one, and received valuable playing time in the Bruins' NCAA semifinal game against Indiana. He made a lot of progress in the off-season, scoring a few goals in UCLA's spring games. He has the potential to be a scoring threat, having scored 94 points in his high school career.
Gregorio, who played mostly in midfield while with the U.S. U-17 National Team, has scored while with the U-20 team and gives the Bruins versatility and playmaking ability. He is a good one-on-one player who has experience playing on the wing. The 2000 CIF Southern Section Offensive Player of the Year and a member of the U.S. U-18 National Team and U-20 National Team pool, McKinley ended his prep career as Fountain Valley High School's all-time leading scorer with 62 goals. His goal-scoring prowess continued on into the summer, as he recorded a hat trick in his first game at the USYSA Youth Nationals and led his team to the championship game. McKinley has good speed and great scoring instincts.
Taylor is another member of the U.S. U-20 National Team pool and another prolific goal scorer, having totaled 63 goals and 156 points in his career at Irvine HS. He is known for his power, great work rate and determination around the goal area.
Also expected to see playing time up front, as well as at attacking defender, is junior Sean Walker (1g, 4a career). Sophomore Chadd Davis could also play up front or in the midfield. Also available is redshirt freshman Joe Woznuk
"We have many options but also a wide variety of styles," said Salda?a. "We have size, speed, power, skill and experience. A big plus is that the competition amongst the forwards should motivate each player to greater levels."
Tsakiris, a 1999 first-team All-MPSF selection, led the Bruins with 13 assists in just 16 games, a total that ranks sixth in UCLA's record books. An excellent playmaker, Tsakiris is a dangerous scoring threat thanks to his pinpoint accuracy and outstanding free kicks. He also possesses international experience, having played with the U-20 National team at the 1999 World Youth Championships.
A teammate of Tsakiris at the World Youth Championships was Futagaki, who later made the jump to the U-23 team and won a bronze medal at the 1999 Pan American Games. Futagaki, who scored three goals and recorded three assists in 1999, is one of UCLA's most exciting players, possessing a good combination of tenacity, work rate and skill, not to mention his crowd-pleasing karate-style goal celebration.
"Shaun and Futo have a lot of experience playing together, and because of that have a great understanding of each other," said Salda?a. "These two both do well to generate offense, and they compliment each other in their styles of play." Foote returns for his final year after sitting out the 1999 season with abdominal surgery. A transfer from Penn, where he was All-Ivy League as a freshman, Foote is a strong presence in the defensive midfield with his good work ethic and intense play.
Salda?a will be able to turn to two fairly experienced players off the bench in sophomore Jimmy Frazelle, who played in seven games last year and contributed two assists, and junior Brandon Kay, who played in 11 games and made one start in 1999. Kay has 30 games played and 11 starts in his career. Also available are left-footed redshirt freshman Kyle Julian, a 1997 NSCAA High School All-American, and freshman Ty Maurin, who earned All-CIF honors in 1999. Also competing for playing time in the midfield will be versatile senior Caleb Westbay, who could also play up front or in the back, and freshman Joey Yusunas, a good playmaker with a good understanding of the game.
A UCLA trademark, the Bruins once again boast a formidable and athletic defense, led by senior Ryan Lee, a returning all-conference selection, and youngsters Scot Thompson, Nelson Akwari, Alex Yi and Leonard Griffin. All five players have U.S. National team experience.
Bruin team captain Lee is one of UCLA's top athletes. He is a fast and versatile player who will shore up the middle of the defense. Lee, who has trained with the U-23 National team, also provided an offensive boost last season, scoring four goals and three assists. "Ryan, who started for the national championship team in 1997, sets the standard for the team in terms of his commitment and dedication," praised Salda?a.
Also playing in the middle will be Yi, a member of the U.S. U-20 team and a starter on the U-17 team at the World Championships. Yi is another athletic defender, having played every minute of every match at the 1999 World Championships qualifying tournament. At 6-2, his height will be a tremendous asset in the back and on the offensive side in the box. In addition, he is a skillful player with the ball, a good passer and a strong defender.
A teammate of Yi at the U-17 World Championships and of Futagaki at the Pan Am Games was Akwari, who has played with U.S. National Teams since 1997, totaling 48 caps with the U-23s, U-20s and U-17s. Akwari brings impressive credentials to Westwood, having been named the 1999 NSCAA High School Player of the Year and Parade Magazine's 2000 National Co-Player of the Year. He is another strong defender whose biggest asset is his consistency.
Thompson got his shot with the U-20s this past spring, playing in four games. He was a key impact player for the Bruins in 1999, earning Rookie of the Year honors after playing in 17 games and starting eight while scoring four goals. His final goal in 1999 capped a Bruin comeback in the NCAA semifinals that sent the game into overtime. Speed and athleticism are his No. 1 strengths.
Griffin also played with the U-20s in 2000 and is expected to see action on the left side of the field for the Bruins. The left-footed Griffin is an attacking-minded back who could also play as a left-sided midfielder.
Also in contention is freshman Tony Lawson, who has been a member of the U.S. U-17 National team pool. Both Griffin and Lawson have experience in big games, as Griffin played with the U-18 National Team in 1999 at the U.S. Soccer Festival, and Lawson played in the national finals in 1999 with his club team.
"Our big strength here is the depth and versatility of all of our defenders," said Salda?a. "All of them have experience at each position and can be interchanged if necessary."
Possibly one of the most experienced youth goalkeepers in U.S. history will take over in the nets for the Bruins in 2000. DJ Countess enters his freshman year with 47 U.S. caps to his credit and a total of 10 shutouts in 1999. Countess has already been touted as a future U.S. National Team goalkeeper.
"DJ's experience will surely help quicken his transition time," Salda?a said. "He has played in many big games and is very comfortable in pressure situations." Salda?a also likes Countess' ability to direct the defense, as well as his consistency.
With last year's top two goalies no longer with the program, redshirt freshman Zach Wells, who sat out 1999 with a thumb injury, moves into the No. 2 position. Wells has worked his way into the U.S. U-20 National Team pool and played two games, earning a tie and recording a 1.00 GAA. Junior Stephen Gardner moved from a non-roster position in the 1999 season to a varsity position in 2000 after playing well in the spring. He will look for his first minutes as the No. 3 goalie.
Pre-season No. 3 UCLA will face an early test in the 2000 season, playing defending NCAA champion and pre-season No. 1 Indiana Sept. 2 and 1999 runner-up and pre-season No. 2 Santa Clara Sept. 28. Both games will be played on the road. The Indiana contest will be a rematch of last year's epic four-overtime marathon at the NCAA Semifinals. The Bruins also have a road battle against Southern California rival Cal State Fullerton Oct. 26 and a home match-up against perennial power Portland Oct. 28.
The Bruins will compete in the Pacific-10 Conference this season, having left the MPSF along with Stanford, California, Washington and Oregon State. Because the Pac-10 only has five teams in the conference, it will not receive an automatic NCAA bid. However, leaving the MPSF freed all five teams to play tougher schedules which should strengthen its position once tournament bids are handed out. In the Pac-10 schedule, the Bruins will face each team twice in a home-away series, giving UCLA two games apiece against No. 12 Washington and No. 23 Stanford.
"Being in the Pac-10 automatically strengthens our schedule yearly by a good margin," said Salda?a. "The other teams in the Pac-10 have been our regional rivals and are nationally respected. Hopefully, these matches will better prepare us for the post-season."