I feel like the men’s soccer program hasn’t garnered enough respect in the last few years. Maybe it’s because the sport starts before the school year begins, and so half the season is over by the time Welcome Week rolls around, or maybe it’s because Anteater Stadium is in a relatively forlorn part of campus compared to the Bren Events Center and Anteater Ballpark. It can’t be the “Americans don’t appreciate soccer” thing, because UCSB and Cal Poly men’s soccer draw ridiculous crowds (11,075 in San Luis Obispo a few days ago!). Here at UC Irvine though, soccer plays second fiddle to volleyball and baseball. I’m not trying to downplay either of those sports, as both of them have seen remarkable success, but what George Kuntz has done at UCI deserves a salute as well. The ‘Eaters are ranked nationally in the Top 10 with an RPI recently in the Top 5.
Note: I realize the timing of this post could have been better, as UCI just lost two straight games for the first time this season, falling to UC Davis 2-1 in OT tonight. Nonetheless, pressing on.
Stalwarts from the last two seasons such as Amani Walker (11 goals), Spencer Thompson (6 goals, 6 assists) and Corey Attaway (5 goals, 3 assists) along with solid defenders Joel Bagby and Gray Bailey have been replaced effortlessly this year. Miguel Ibarra was the key returning offensive contributor (1 goals, 10 assists in 2010), and has stepped it up even more this season (6 goals, 6 assists already this season) while Christian Hernandez has exploded while moving from a reserve role last season to a starting spot this year (6 goals, 6 assists this season). The same can be said for Enrique Cardenas and Christopher Santana, showing that coach Kuntz’s pipeline is deep. I can see the highly touted group of freshmen that came in this year do the same thing in following years, headlined by Lester Hayes III, who scored his fourth goal of the season tonight against the Aggies. Hampered by a weak RPI due to a “soft” schedule last year that resulted in getting robbed from an at-large bid, Kuntz upped the competition level in scheduling this year, and it has paid off thus far.
It’s refreshing to see a team maintain a consistent excellence with a long time coach that obviously knows what he is doing. These guys don’t mind working their way up, unlike in basketball, where a lack of playing time in one season many times means a transfer to another school. Much of this may be chalked up to the nature of the sport, but I can’t speak for most programs in the nation. Hopefully the 2011 squad can finish strong and make another run in the NCAA Tournament.