Aug. 15, 2007
The UCLA men's soccer team enters the season with a simple approach of improving upon last year's results. But considering that last year saw a young Bruin squad advance all the way to the NCAA Championship game, a little improvement could go a long way in 2007.
With a vastly deep lineup, led by eight returning starters, not to mention two would-be starters last year who were sidelined with injuries, this Bruin team, ranked No. 1 in the pre-season, is fully loaded and on a mission to claim the national title they came so close to winning last winter.
"Our team for 2007 is one that is very deep, very experienced to an extent, and, most importantly, very hungry to improve upon last season," said UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo. "Our mentality that we hope to build throughout the year is to have our season be improved just a little bit in all facets, from our approach in training, to our approach to games, from the beginning of the season to the post-season. I think the team knows that if we have a similar season we'll be successful. But if we do things a little bit better, we could achieve great things."
With a year of experience under their belts, last year's predominantly under-class squad is a year older and a year wiser, and they know what it takes to succeed. Salcedo notes that teamwork and camaraderie are two important ingredients to success.
"The biggest lesson we all learned last season was that to have success you have to first learn how to become a team," Salcedo said. "And at the end of the year, it was evident that we were very much a team in the playoffs. So we'll try to emulate what we did in the 2006 season in terms of some of the team-building and the character and mentality exercises we went through to become a team."
Returning from last year's squad are the team's top two goalscorers - sophomore forward David Estrada (12g, 4a) and junior midfielder Jason Leopoldo (8g, 5a). Also back to kick-start the offense is junior forward Maxwell Griffin, who was leading UCLA in scoring with five goals before going down in the eighth game of the year with a knee injury.
UCLA's midfield looks strong once again with the return of Leopoldo, second-leading assist man Kyle Nakazawa (4g, 8a), U.S. Under-20 National Team starter Tony Beltran and 2006 UCLA Rookie of the Year Michael Stephens (2g, 3a).
Defensively, three of the four starters from 2006 return, including All-Far West and first-team All-Pac-10 honoree Mike Zaher, Pan Am Games team captain Greg Folk, and two-time All-Pac-10 selection Brad Rusin. In addition, the Bruins return the services of veterans Brandon Owens and Edwige Ligondé, who both missed the 2006 season due to injury, and Pan Am Games starter Chance Myers.
There is no drop-off in goal despite the loss of three-year starter Eric Reed. Taking over between the pipes is U.S. Under-20 National Team goalkeeper Brian Perk, who lost just one game in seven starts last season as a 17-year old freshman.
With 22 returning players on the roster, including 17 with starting experience, plus the addition of six talented newcomers, the Bruins have the pieces in place to make the improvements necessary for a national championship,
The Bruins will carry four goalkeepers on the roster. Sophomore Brian Perk has the most experience of the group, having made seven starts a year ago and going 3-1-3 while receiving All-Freshman honors from Top Drawer Soccer. Perk also gained a great deal of experience with the U.S. Under-20 National Team at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, capturing a win over Uruguay in the Round of 16.
Trevor Hunter redshirted the 2006 season, learning under starter Eric Reed and Perk. Hunter, tall and athletic at 6-3, has excellent range and a strong presence in goal. He was a member of the 2005 Pateadores national championship club squad.
New to the team are true freshmen Brian Rowe and Kevin Weiner. Rowe was a two-time All-State goalkeeper in Oregon and set a school and conference record as a sophomore by shutting out every conference opponent. He is another very athletic goalkeeper, having earned state honors in soccer, football and track and field. Weiner was team captain at Mira Costa HS last season and posted 9.5 shutouts while guiding his team to the CIF playoffs.
"Having four goalkeepers this year will help us in a variety of ways," said Salcedo. "Each of them brings a different skill set and common approach to training. Both Brian Perk and Trevor Hunter had excellent off-seasons. Brian Perk having the experience from last season, coupled with a summer with the Youth National Team, makes him our penciled-in starter. With that being said, Trevor Hunter showed that he will push Brian each and every day, and when called upon, he will have the confidence of the coaching staff and his teammates. Brian Rowe has athleticism and a work ethic that will surprise many of our players and which will allow him to compete for one of the top spots. Kevin Weiner complements our goalkeeping crew with a great attitude, work ethic and desire to make the program better."
UCLA is the most experienced in defense, with four upperclassmen returning who have started a combined total of 157 games. The Bruin defense blossomed last year during the NCAA Tournament, posting three shutouts, including one in the NCAA semifinals against fourth-seeded Virginia.
The leader of the defense is right back Mike Zaher, a first-team All-Pac-10 and third-team All-Far West selection a year ago and a 2007 pre-season All-American. Zaher started in 23 games last season and scored two goals with three assists. "Mike Zaher possesses the mentality that epitomizes our approach to defending as a team, which is strong, tenacious and tireless," said Salcedo.
Along with Zaher, one of the team leaders will be Greg Folk, a versatile and consistent player who Salcedo calls "a constant symbol of a team player." Folk, who captained the U.S. Pan American Games squad over the summer, led UCLA in minutes played last season, playing in all but 44 minutes during the year and scoring one goal with two assists.
Three-year starter Brandon Owens returns after sitting out 2006 due to injury. Owens has the most experience on the squad, starting in 57 of 61 career games, not to mention the 36 U.S. Youth National Team caps he has accumulated. The redshirt senior was a starter on UCLA's 2003 squad that tied the school record for lowest team goals against average (0.52). Owens is the Bruins' most athletic player and is, Salcedo says, "very motivated to have his best season yet at UCLA."
Six-foot-four junior Brad Rusin established himself at the end of last season as a strong defensive presence and earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention honors for the second consecutive year. " We expect him to continue to grow as a player and give us even more this season," said Salcedo.
Returning players Chance Myers, Edwige Ligondé, Sean Alvarado and Ryan White were given opportunities in the off-season, and, according to Salcedo, "each did well to put themselves into positions to play." The four provide great depth and lots of options for the coaching staff with their skill, size and experience.
Myers, a sophomore, is a member of the U.S. Under-20 National Team and was a starter at the 2007 Pan American Games. Myers contributed one goal with four assists while playing in 21 games with five starts a year ago for the Bruins. Ligondé, who is coming off a redshirt season, will not be at full strength at the start of the season, but when healthy, he brings three years of experience in the program. Alvarado earned nine starts last season and saw action in both games at the College Cup. At six-foot-three, he brings good size to the back line, as does White, a 6-2 rising sophomore who had one start in six games played a year ago.
The Bruins have high hopes for freshman Fernando De Alba, an aggressive 6-1 player who starred with the ODP Region IV team. "Fernando De Alba is a player who will add a different dimension to our defense, and, in time, will become an integral component," said Salcedo.
Others expected to factor in are sophomores Patrick Rickards and Danny Suits, both of whom saw playing time last year. Rickards played in six games with one start, while Suits played in seven contests. "Patrick and Danny are athletic and versatile players who can play as defenders and as midfielders, which may give them more opportunities to see minutes during the season," Salcedo noted.
UCLA's midfield remains a strong suit, even with the departure of All-American and Under-20 World Cup star Sal Zizzo. The Bruins return a very skillful quartet of starters in Tony Beltran, Jason Leopoldo, Michael Stephens and Kyle Nakazawa, who can give opponents a variety of looks.
"Those four players, as a group, are most likely the four most technically gifted players in the country," proclaimed Salcedo. "Their ability to keep possession and break down defenses make them a dynamic group of players."
Beltran started at right back for the U.S. at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, but his more natural position is as a defensive midfielder, where he logged 14 starts last season. Beltran's value was evident last season when he kick-started the Bruins' playoff run upon return from an ankle injury that sidelined him for a month.
Leopoldo had a breakthrough season last year, ranking second on the squad with eight goals and three game-winners and third on the team with 21 points. The former U.S. international was one of three Bruin players who started all 24 games last season, and he earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.
Stephens was a 22-game starter and earned All-Freshman acclaim from Soccer America after his two-goal, three-assist season. A member of both the Under-18 and Under-20 National Teams, Stephens had a busy off-season, playing in the Pan Am Games and the SBS Games in Japan, in addition to leading his PDL team to the conference finals.
Nakazawa, another Soccer America All-Freshman selection and U.S. Youth National Team member, ranked second on the Bruin squad last year with eight assists and also added four goals for a total of 16 points. Nakazawa started all 24 games in 2006, splitting time in midfield and up front as a forward.
Two other players who saw starting minutes last year are sophomores James Jaramillo and Chance Myers. Jaramillo started nine games and contributed one of the Bruins' biggest goals in the regular season, a game-winner with 18 seconds remaining in double overtime to beat conference rival Washington. Salcedo sees both as "players who will give us consistent minutes and important moments throughout the season."
Sophomore Andrew Sinderhoff and junior transfer Tomer Konowiecki can fill in at various spots in the midfield. "Andrew and Tomer are technically very sound players," said Salcedo. "Each has a goal-scoring ability that we hope will grow."
The Bruins have the luxury of maintaining two proven front runners in sophomore David Estrada and junior Maxwell Griffin. "Our forwards do exactly what you hope a group of attacking players do for a team ... score goals," Salcedo pointed out. The dynamic duo combined to score 17 goals in a total of 31 games last season, and each recorded shot percentages of 30% or higher.
Last season's Soccer America Freshman of the Year, Estrada went from walk-on reserve to starting hero, scoring a team-high 12 goals and 28 points, with 11 of his goals coming after being inserted into the starting lineup. Estrada parlayed his 2006 success into a call-up to the U.S. Under-18 National Team camp. Salcedo predicts Estrada to be "motivated and eager to improve upon his tremendous freshman year."
Griffin is also hungry to get back on the pitch after missing most of 2006 with a knee injury suffered in the eighth game of the season. Griffin was on a tear just prior to his injury, scoring five goals to lead the team and being named the consensus national player of the week just the week before. The Bruins expect him to be back in the same form this season, which should bolster an already explosive lineup.
Also looking to see action up front are freshman Kyle McAthy, redshirt freshman Robert Georgiefski and sophomore Kyle Nakazawa. McAthy was a proven goal scorer at Huntington Beach HS the last four years, compiling a school record 52 goals in his career, combined with 23 assists for 127 career points. Last season, he ranked second in Orange County with 24 goals. Georgiefski, who was the leading scorer for the Pateadores during their 2005 national championship season, redshirted in 2006 after suffering a knee injury in the team's first exhibition game but is ready for his first full year of competition.
"These players give us a core group of offensive players who will be a handful for opposing teams," praised Salcedo.
Once again, the Bruins have a challenging schedule on tap, opening the season on the road against nationally-ranked teams from Notre Dame, Indiana and Creighton. In addition, the Bruins have a road match against pre-season No. 8 Santa Clara and the usual Pac-10 dual schedule. In all, the Bruins have 11 games scheduled against 2006 NCAA Tournament teams.
"The first three games of the season will present a great opportunity for us to see whether or not our group did learn from last year's experience," said Salcedo. "Our home and away matches against non-conference opponents, plus a difficult conference schedule will make every game this season a challenge, but one that we'll take one game at a time."