Aug. 23, 2007
Here is a little bit of college soccer trivia that may stump a few fans. Which NCAA Division I men's program has the highest winning percentage over the last three seasons? One quick guess would be Maryland with its two College Cup appearances and 2005 national title. Another good choice would be UC-Santa Barbara. The Guachos also boast a pair of College Cup showings and a national title in the last three seasons. However, neither UCSB's mark of 51-15-5 (.754), the Terps' 52-15-5 (.757) record nor Indiana's 47-11-10 (.765) tally is equal to the University of New Mexico's 49-7-8 record since the 2004 season. The Lobos .828 winning percentage is by far the highest in the nation over the last three years.
So what does that statistic mean to UNM men's soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein, who has always had the goal of turning the Lobos into one of the top college programs in the country? "We are not there yet," stated Fishbein. "We are certainly in the conversation when you talk about the top programs in the country, but we need to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis to be considered among the elite. That is what fuels our fire and keeps us working towards the ultimate goal of winning a national title."
Coming off three consecutive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titles, the Lobos again look poised for another run at the MPSF crown and their sixth NCAA appearance in the last seven years. UNM returns nine starters and 13 lettermen to a team that went 14-4-3 in 2006, including an 8-1-1 mark in league action. The Lobos advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2006 and are looking for an even longer postseason run in 2007. Led by five seniors and a seasoned group of juniors and sophomores, New Mexico has the talent and experience to be a contender on the national scene this season.
"We've got a very strong foundation in place with our returning players," stated Fishbein. "It is always a plus to have nine starters returning from a winning team, but we have brought in some very talented players who will push for time on the field. Five guys redshirtted last season and each could prove to be an impact player. The competition for playing time is going to be fierce and it is going to make us a better team."
The Lobos once had the luxury of playing the underdog role and sneaking up on opponents. However, things have changed over the last three years with UNM entering the season with a No. 10 national ranking according to CollegeSoccerNews.com. It is the third straight year New Mexico has been ranked in the top-10 in the preseason. The Lobos have been ranked in the top-25 every week since the start of the 2004 season.
"We have to come out ready to play every night," added Fishbein. "We are now a highlighted game on a lot of teams' schedules and we are going to get everyone's best effort every night. It is a tough challenge, but it comes with the territory of being a quality team. I think our guys are ready for that challenge this year." New Mexico has put together another strong schedule that includes four teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and two that are ranked in the preseason top-30. Seven of UNM's eight non-conference opponents posted winning records in 2006. UNM starts the season with a pair of exhibition contests against two of the best teams in the country, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 8 Indiana. These matches will be played in Fort Wayne, Ind., on Aug. 23 & 25. Both schools were NCAA Tournament teams in 2006 with Indiana advancing to the Sweet 16 and Notre Dame one win away from the College Cup.
The regular season begins on Friday, Aug. 31, at Akron. UNM will also take on Hartwick in Akron, Ohio, on Sunday, Sept. 2. The Lobos' home opener is set for Friday, Sept. 7, against Loyola Marymount at 7:30 p.m. (M.D.T.) on the opening night of the TLC Plumbing & Utility Invitational. New Mexico goes against Cincinnati on Sunday, Sept. 7, at 1:00 p.m. UNM continues a four-game home stand the following weekend with the Crescent Financial Solutions Invitational. Action begins on Friday, Sept. 14, with No. 3 UC Santa Barbara taking on No. 7 SMU at 4:30 p.m. (M.D.T.). The Lobos face No. 17 Washington in the second match at 7:00 p.m. The Lobos will face the Guachos, the defending national champions, on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 3:00 p.m., following the match between the Huskies and the Mustangs at noon. With all four teams ranked in the preseason top-20, the Crescent Financial Solutions Invitational will be one of the top tournaments in 2007.
UNM concludes non-conference action with a California road trip Sept. 20-22. The Lobos visit Cal State Northridge for a 5:00 p.m. (M.D.T.) match on Thursday, Sept. 20, and San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 22., for an 8:00 p.m. kick-off.
Despite dominating the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation for the last three seasons, UNM has needed a win in the final game the last two years to win the conference title. New Mexico is 34-6-4 in MPSF action under Fishbein, winning four of the last five federation trophies. However, with two new coaches in the six-team league, the MPSF could have a different look in 2007. New Mexico opens conference play at home with matches against Denver on Oct. 5. New Mexico will play five conference teams in a home-away format, with the regular season winner again capturing the MPSF's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We are excited about our upcoming schedule," stated Fishbein. "We have a good balance of tough games at home and on the road against some of the best competition in the country. We are still working hard to become one of the top programs in the nation and to do that, you have to play the top teams. This schedule includes some of those high-caliber programs."
The foundation for the Lobos' success in recent years has been based on their strong defense, starting with the keeper position. Senior Mike Graczyk will again be the leader among a trio of goalies on the Lobo roster. He is the only one with collegiate game experience, earning first team All-MPSF honors in 2006. Graczyk set a school record with 13 shutouts in 2005 and added 11 last season. He needs one more to tie Andrew Weber (2001-04) for the school record for career shutouts. Graczyk's 0.64 career goals-against-average is currently the lowest in UNM history. Look for Gracyzk to continue to start between the pipes, but he will be pushed by redshirt freshmen Justin Fite and Eric Staver.
Both Fite and Staver were on the Lobo roster last season, their first at UNM. Both suited up for every home game and the duo split time traveling to away games. Fite came to UNM as an all-state performer from Klein Collins High School in Spring, Texas, while Staver was also an all-state player for Portage Northern High School in Portage, Mich.
"Graczyk gives us a proven winner at the keeper position and is the most experienced player we will put on the field," stated Fishbein. "However, he is going to be challenged by two very capable keepers who want to play."
The Lobos biggest single loss from last season is the graduation of Hermann Trophy Semifinalist Andrew Boyens. The 6-4 defender anchored the backline for UNM the last three years, twice being named the MPSF Player of the Year. Boyens was also a two-time All-American and is now starting in the backfield for Major League Soccer's Toronto FC.
Despite the loss of Boyens, the Lobos will have a talented and deep defense in 2007. Freshman All-American Simon Ejdemyr returns at centerback. The 6-3 sophomore was a first team All-MPSF selection last season and will be joined by fellow sophomores Zach Tierney and Justin Davis. Tierney was a second team All-MPSF selection as a freshman, leading the team with five assists. Davis also had a solid freshman campaign, scoring a goal and three assists from the left side. Junior Mike Porter, a second team All-MPSF honoree, will likely move back from the midfield to take the other central position.
"Starting three sophomores in the back may look like a young defense, but all of these guys played big minutes for us last season" added Fishbein. "Tierney has been a top player at every level he has played and both JD and Simon had excellent freshman campaigns. Porter's versatility and experience will also make him a solid part of our defense."
The Lobos are loaded in the midfield with 12 players fighting for playing time. Returning starters include seniors David Gualdarama and Joey Vitagliano. Gualdarama started all 21 games last season and was a first team All-MPSF selection while Vitagliano was fourth on the team in scoring with three goals and three assists and a third team All-MPSF pick. Another pair of All-MPSF picks return to the midfield, including junior Jack Smithson and sophomore Stephen Brown who each made the third team. Smithson scored a pair of goals and three assists while Brown was second on the team in scoring with four goals and two assists.
"Dave and Joey are going to have to be the leaders on the team for us to be successful," stated Fishbein. "They are both winners and will be expected to set the tone for the new guys and show them what it takes to be successful at this level."
Senior Blake Danaher and sophomore Bryan Sajjadi are returning letterwinners who saw time in the midfield last season. Both players were versatile in their roles in the attack, shifting from forward to midfield throughout the season. Redshirt freshmen Michael Reed and Dominique Romero also return to the lineup. The pair spent last year training with the team and gained valuable experience at the collegiate level. Reed was the 2005 New Mexico High School Player of the Year and an NSCAA All-American. He was expected to be an impact player as a freshman but suffered a season ending knee injury in August 2006. He has recovered and is again expected to have an impact on the team in 2007.
"Blake and Bryan can play anywhere in the attack and I look for both of them to have big years," continued Fishbein. "Mike and Dom both saw what it takes to compete at a high level last season and I expect them to be contributors in the fall."
There are three new faces set to join the Lobos this season, including senior transfer Diego Barrera, sophomore transfer Ryan Lytle and freshman Joel Theissen. Barrera comes to UNM from Loyola Marymount where he was a two-time All-West Coast Conference performer. He is expected to be an impact player in his final year of college soccer. Lytle last played in the 2005 season at Cal State Los Angeles. Theissen joins the Lobos from Windsor, Australia, where he was a member of the Australian U-23 training squad.
"Any one of our new guys can step in and give us valuable minutes," added Fishbein. "There is going to be a lot of competition in the midfield for playing time, but you need to be this deep in the middle to be successful against the teams we will face this season."
The top of the Lobo attack will be led by junior Chris Wright and sophomore P.J. Wilson. Wright led the team in scoring last season with six goals and three assists on his way to second team All-MPSF honors. Wilson is known as a dangerous threat up top, but only managed one goal as a freshman.
"Chris had a great spring and summer and should be one of our better attacking players," explained Fishbein. "P.J. had a tough time finding the net last season, but we expect him to have a breakout season after his first year of adjusting to college soccer."
Also expected to see time at the forward position are Danaher and Sajjadi. Any combination of Danaher, Wright, Sajjadi and Wilson could be the staring duo at the forward spot, depending on matchups and who is more needed in the midfield. Redshirt freshman Gardner Morrow will also factor into the Lobo attack. Morrow trained with the team last season and has the credentials to be a contributor in 2007. He was an NSCAA All-American and the Vermont Player of the Year as a senior in high school in 2005.
"Like the midfield, we will have a lot of options at our disposal at the forward position," said Fishbein. "A lot of it will depend on how guys are playing and who is playing in the midfield."
Fishbein has put together a talented and deep group of players for the upcoming season. The pieces are in place for the Lobos to make a run at their fourth straight MPSF title. If it all comes together, it could be another special season for the New Mexico soccer program.