On the eve of the official start of the 2009 season, the San Jose State University men's soccer team looks to build on the momentum of back-to-back winning seasons, spurred by a strong finish to the 2008 campaign which saw the Spartans reel off four straight victories to cap a six-game unbeaten stretch, at 5-0-1, all in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play.
San Jose State has nine active letterwinners back, including six starters, among them fourth-year seniors Nick Cukar and Colby Moore, who led the entire conference with nine goals and eight assists, respectively, a season ago. The club has what looks to be a somewhat favorable schedule in a changed format in the now-eight-team MPSF, with the additions of Cal State Bakersfield and Seattle. The automatic NCAA Championship berth shifts to the reintroduced MPSF Tournament, in Denver, Colo., in November. For this year only, the league will go with a single round-robin regular-season slate, with the Spartans having the luxury of playing both teams that finished ahead of them in last year's MPSF standings, Denver and New Mexico, at home, where they were 7-1-2 in 2008.
"What I hope to see out of this team is wins," remarks head coach Gary St. Clair, now in his milestone 20th season in charge at his alma mater. "We're a performance-oriented team, which simply means that what we have in our control is making sure we go out and bleed Spartan Blue each and every game. This team does that. This is a very blue-collar team. These guys will run through walls for you. They will never, ever give up. They have good talent, comparable to the rest of the teams in the MPSF. I think that we are going to do well in the conference.
"One of the things that we learned at the end of last year was the importance of having absolutely everybody pulling together as a team. I think this is one of the better groups, in terms of being a team, that I've had in several years. I wouldn't trade a player on this team, and we expect to compete for the conference championship."
Another change in addition to the new league format in 2009, is the first-time move to FieldTurf to replace the grass surface inside San Jose State's home venue, Spartan Stadium. All eight regular-season home contests are scheduled to take place there.
The pursuit of a third successive winning campaign, and a first return trip back to the NCAA Championship since 2003, begins in front of the Spartan faithful on Tuesday night, September 1, against area rival UC Davis.
The Spartans' position-by-position breakdown begins with the absolute certainty that a new body will occupy the space between the goal posts this season. With Richard Mann and Lewis Sweeney both gone, the goalkeeper spot still represents the most competitive battle heading into Opening Night. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Newman is in a heated competition with sophomore newcomer Jonathan Lester, a Texas product and transfer from Southern Methodist University who was with the team during spring training. Together, the duo has combined for only Lester's 10-plus minutes of field time in NCAA Division I play, but made the decision a difficult one for the coaches with their performance.
"It's true that we don't have anybody (in goal) with Division I experience on this team. However, I think that the two goalkeepers that will be playing for us have the potential to be two of the best we've had in years. Along with attacking midfield, goalie is the most competitive position we have on the team. I told them last spring that whoever does the best job over the summer, comes into camp prepared, is the fittest and plays the best, is going to win the spot. Right now, after training camp, I couldn't tell you who that's going to be.
"Over the course of the first few games, we're going to take a hard look at the goalkeeping situation. Both of them are extremely capable goalkeepers, and can win us a championship, but unfortunately, only one can play at a time."
True freshman Doug Highton will be the third-string keeper and likely will redshirt.
The challenge for St. Clair and his staff will come on the back line, where the Spartans have to replace departed seniors Ed Brand and Sam Shore in the middle and Gavin Wenyon on the right. Fifth-year senior Oscar Monjaras has been chosen as a team co-captain and pushed inside from left back to center back to anchor the unit. He is likely to be joined there by newcomer Nick Murphy, an older freshman who took time off following his prep days in San Francisco, but has been with the Spartans since the start of the last spring season.
On the outsides, the favorites to start are redshirt sophomores Dan Addiego (four starts in 2008) on the right and Eric Angell on the left.
"Even though we have some experience returning on defense, guys that backed up (last year), and good players there, it certainly is a question mark for us. We have put as much time and effort as we possibly could into that back line.
"The entire back line had a great spring, but the spring is different than the fall, in terms of both the intensity and the quality. It's going to take us a good part of the early season to really determine who our back four are, and get them fit for a conference season, because as far as I'm concerned, our success this year is going to be dependent on those four guys back there."
Redshirt freshman Omri Brinner and freshman newcomers Mauricio Murillo, Jr., on the left, Christian Romero on the right and Ricky Martin and Nick Carrara in the middle, should provide depth.
The midfield is the strongest area of the pitch for San Jose State, where four starters return, and four-year stalwart Hiroki Akiyama needs to be replaced. The wings are stacked deep, led by senior co-captain Nick Cukar on the left. Cukar continued to be a revelation and up his game further a year ago, striking for seven game-winners in the nine Spartan triumphs, among his league-best nine goals. He was named second-team all-region and first-team All-MPSF for his efforts. On the right is junior Ricky Dorrego, who tallied 12 points from four goals and four assists in 2008. Redshirt sophomore Robert Jackson and freshman Steven Sanchez are behind those players on the left and right, respectively.
"In midfield and at striker, almost all of our players return, and that is really the strength of our team, is in our midfield. Besides goalkeeping, the only depth we have is in midfield. We've got excellent depth there. We've got two sets of flank players that I think are as good as anybody in the conference in Ricky Dorrego and Steve Sanchez on the right, and Nick Cukar and Bobby Jackson on the left. That gives us great alternatives for a position that is really not a 90-minute position. When one gets tired, then the other one can come in and spell him, and we're not going to drop off much at all.
"Obviously, Nick Cukar had a fabulous season for us last year. The kid is going to be a marked man. It's going to be interesting to see how well he adapts to that.
Fifth-year senior Brian McGuire, who has appeared in the most matches, 53, of any active Spartan, Josh Boemecke, who earned All-MPSF honorable mention in just his first year in the program in 2008, and the sophomore duo of Justin Castro and Oscar Yniguez figure in the center of the five-man Spartan midfield.
"In the central midfield, I don't think there are two players in the entire conference I would trade for our two holding midfielders. Josh Boemecke and Brian McGuire are just nasty players to play against. Not that they are rough. It's just that they take up so much space, they're so quick, and they disrupt so much of what the other team's attack is doing. They are miserable to play against. Both have great quickness, great athleticism, and those guys are really going to anchor the center of our entire team.
"The attacking midfield spot is probably the most competitive position on the team besides goalkeeper. We have Justin Castro and Oscar Yniguez. Both of those guys are excellent technicians and excellent players. They see the field extremely well. Both can finish. They are the type of players that people pay to come watch. Again, I don't believe that's a 90-minute position either, so both of them are going to see an awful lot of playing time."
Nik Allen, a sophomore transfer from Santa Clara, is a new prospect in midfield.
Colby Moore, a local product out of Los Gatos and Bellarmine Prep, returns for his fourth and final season, and will start again as the lone striker up top in St. Clair's 4-5-1 alignment. He led the league with a career-high eight assists a season ago, earning second-team All-MPSF distinction. His back-up will be Dylan Murphy, a true freshman, the younger brother of teammate Nick, and a converted midfielder out of necessity due to injury who was a highlight of training camp. Stephen Cordova, a fellow San Francisco native who would have been a senior this year, will redshirt after suffering an injury over the summer.
"Colby came into camp with an injury, and has been recuperating, so we really haven't seen the best of him. I think it's going to take him a little while to get his form back, but Colby is unique in what he does. I don't think anybody works harder on this team or in this conference than Colby. I would describe him as a workaholic. He creates everything he does through that work rate.
"We've lost Steve Cordova, who was going to get a lot of playing time. The striker position, when you're playing one-up, is certainly not a 90-minute position, but we have found probably the revelation of this training camp in Dylan Murphy. Dylan has come in and surprised all of us with how mature he is, how quick he is, and how well he integrates himself within the team, in the things that he does.
"In terms of the new guys coming in, Dylan probably is at the top of the chart right now. But we also have Nick Carrara, who has shown real upside, along with Ricky Martin, who is coming off an injury last year. Then you also throw in Christian Romero, who is certainly going to be pushing for a starting position."
Redshirt freshman George Fahmy, a Valley Christian High School graduate, is another option at forward. Freshmen Jose Andrade, Juan Carlos Borja, Favio Martinez and Aland Suasin join Cordova as the redshirt contingent.
"I like the team," concludes St. Clair. "The question mark revolves around the back line, but when you lose three-quarters of your back line, that's always going to be the case. This is a good team."