Men's Soccer Season Preview Pt. I: Defense and Goalkeeping

Kevin Garcia-Lopez (Photo by Tony Mastres)

This is the first of a three-part, week-long series previewing the upcoming 2014 UCSB men's soccer season ahead of Saturday's campaign-opening exhibition against Westmont. Today's preview, presented by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, will break down UCSB's defense and goalkeeping.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – A year ago, UCSB's opening-day back line featured four returning starters, three of whom were seniors, and was considered a point of stability and strength for a team that had considerably more turnover in the midfield and attacking third.

In 2014, that narrative has flipped – the Gauchos defense will be young and relatively untested compared to the midfielders and forwards, but head coach Tim Vom Steeg is confident that this year's defensive corps can play at or exceed the standard set last year when UCSB allowed just 20 goals in 21 games.

"We feel very comfortable with whatever four guys we will run out there," Vom Steeg said. "Kevin [Garcia-Lopez] and Duncan [Backus] both played great at outside back last season, [Brandon] Brockway showed he can play at the Division I level as a freshman, and Paul Ehmann has been the best defender in training camp."

Barring injuries, those four appear to be in line for the lion's share of minutes in the back.

Garcia-Lopez, one of just two seniors and the longest-tenured member of this year's squad, will operate at right back and his experience and leadership will be key to the team's success.

"We're very proud of what Kevin has been able to accomplish," said Vom Steeg. "He ran with the playing time he received last year, and with his strong play he has the opportunity to be one of the top players in the league as a senior."

With his speed, Vom Steeg envisions him serving more as a wingback as opposed to a through-and through-defender, depending on the opposition. Regardless of the opponent, expect "J-Lo" to make a number of runs down the right wing, but he may even be positioned further up the field against certain teams with the Gauchos utilizing more of a back-three. Garcia-Lopez scored a goal-of-the-year candidate against UC Irvine last season and ranked third on the squad (and first among defenders) in assists, so he will be relied upon to again provide width and scoring opportunities from the right wing.

On the other flank, Backus will resume his appointment at left back after filling in for an injured Matt Glodack a season ago.

"He has done the most in training camp to lock down that left back spot," said Vom Steeg.

Backus was a fine deputy at left back last season, appearing in 16 of the team's final 17 games. The natural midfielder showed composure on the ball despite playing a relatively new position.

At the center of the defense will be Brockway, who led all UCSB defenders with 18 appearances as a freshman in 2012 before missing the majority of 2013 due to injury, and Ehmann, who impressed as a freshman last season as a holding midfielder.

On the first day of training, Ehmann provided the "surprise of camp," according to Vom Steeg, when he announced to the coaching staff that he wanted to try his hand at center back.

"He's been the best back in training camp so far," said Vom Steeg. "We already know he is mature, confident, and good on the ball, but where he really has improved is in his fitness. He showed up in much better shape this year and is probably our most improved player from a conditioning-standpoint."

Brockway was an opening-day starter last year, but lasted just seven games before succumbing to a leg injury for the rest of the season. As the defender on the roster with the most career starts, he will be relied upon for experience and composure in the back. Per Vom Steeg, he is "one of the top athletes" on the squad so should provide a healthy dose of minutes provided he stays off the trainer's table.

In a theme that is true for the entire roster, Vom Steeg has a multitude of options to appear off the bench in defense.

At fullback, German newcomer Julian Busch and returnees Marshall Cazares and Adam Carn-Saferstein figure to see time, while Nick DePuy and Jeff Quezada will make appearances at center back.

Carn-Saferstein was steady if not flashy as a holding midfielder and defender last year, appearing in every Big West conference game. He should occupy a similar role this year, filling in all over the pitch while providing above-average possession play.

One of the bigger questions of the offseason and over the start of training camp was where DePuy would play. The 6-4 sophomore started out last year as a midfielder and outside back before settling into a center back role late in the season following an injury to Peter Schmetz. It appears that the Irvine, Calif., native will start out the season in his desired midfield role but may see time in the back as well, where he helped the team allow one goal or fewer in five of his final six starts.

Despite being freshmen, Quezada and Busch excite Vom Steeg. Quezada was a four-year captain at the club level, most recently playing for the LA Galaxy Academy, one of the top club teams in the country. Vom Steeg lauded his composure, citing his ability to play beyond his years. Playing in his native Germany, Busch has already faced some of the best competition in Europe, such as the academies for prestigious clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Liverpool.

Returning for his sophomore season after putting together arguably the most impressive statistical season by a freshman goalkeeper in program history is Josh McNeely.

The LA Galaxy product recorded freshman program marks in goals-against-average (0.83) and minutes (1,836) a year ago, needing just two starts to eliminate the need for an early-season platoon with Austin Mansker and nail down the starting job. Logically, the coaching staff is looking to McNeely to take the next step in his progression as a player.

"We've seen and been impressed by how consistent he is as a player and how even-keeled he is emotionally, which is important in a 'keeper," said Vom Steeg. "What we want to see from him this year is to have more performances like he had against Cal Poly last year (he recorded his fifth shutout of the season in a nationally-televised 2-0 win on Nov. 9, 2013) where he steals a game for us and gets in the head of the opposing attackers."

The Calabasas, Calif., native has caught the eyes of soccer publications nationwide. After earning Big West Freshman of the Year honors from College Sports Madness last year, the website pegged him as the 2014 Preseason All-Big West Defensive Player of the Year.

Behind McNeely are newcomers Brandon Berke and Sergio Esparza. Despite having a combined total of zero appearances at the Division I level, Vom Steeg has liked what he has seen from his backup keepers in training camp.

"Berke has been one of the most pleasant surprises of camp," said Vom Steeg. "He's very good with his feet and is already an adept communicator. I would feel very comfortable if we had to make the move to Brandon for whatever reason."

Esparza has spent the past two years playing for the UCSB club team and serving as a practice keeper for the D-I team. His work ethic earned him a walk-on spot for the 2014 year.

UCSB will play in its annual exhibition game for the Bryant and Sons Cup when it hosts Westmont College at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 23. The regular season opens with games at the College of Charleston and Furman on Aug. 29 and Aug. 31 respectively. The first regular season Meredith Field at Harder Stadium appearance will be Friday, Sept. 5 at 7:00 p.m. against Northwestern.

To purchase season tickets for UCSB men's soccer, or for additional information, please drop by the Athletics Ticket Office in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building on campus, call (805) 893-UCSB (8272) or online by clicking here.

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