This is the second 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 options in the midfield.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Squad-builders in organized soccer from college head coaches all the way to venerated European managers are often faced with a classic quandary: is it better to spend a transfer budget or recruiting efforts on a few star players who can dominate a game or on a number of depth options that will allow a team to continue to thrive through inevitable injuries and inconsistent form?
Luckily for UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg, he has the luxury of not having to choose between one or the other. With the current UCSB roster, he has the best of both worlds.
"Our midfield should really excel for us this year," said Vom Steeg. "Obviously some of our returners have already established themselves in this league, and then we've brought in what I think is the most talented freshman midfield class since I've been here."
With just one starting midfielder from last season gone – Ghanaian defensive mid Fifi Baiden was a third round choice of the Columbus Crew in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft – the Gauchos now sport an embarrassment of riches at the position. This increased depth will allow Vom Steeg to tinker and experiment with the lineup without fear of putting the team at a disadvantage.
"What you're going to see this year is that we have a lot of different options," said Vom Steeg. "It's not always going to necessarily be the 'best' mids out there, but the group who is able to play the best together. Each of our midfielders has different positive qualities, so we're going to see who is going to be able to gel together."
Headlining the returners is sophomore Ismaila Jome, who in 2013 electrified Harder Stadium with exciting offensive play on his way to Big West Freshman of the Year and All-Region honors. With an offseason of development and hard work, both Vom Steeg and national soccer publications seem to think that Jome can be even more lethal this season.
"We all know he is great going forward and making plays with his left foot," said Vom Steeg. "Where he really has improved is on his right foot and in his defensive work. If people over-defend to his left, he will able to cut back on them. We're also asking more of him from a defending standpoint, and he's exceeded our expectations in that area so far in training."
Jome's distinguished first year at Harder led to his inclusion on the 2014 Preseason MAC Hermann Award Watch List, the top honor in collegiate soccer. He has also been named a Preseason All-American by both College Soccer News and College Sports Madness and is a virtual guarantee to be included on the yet-to-be-released Preseason All-Big West Team.
Vom Steeg thinks that the winger is capable of doubling his numbers from last season (two goals, seven assists), but notes that a lot of his qualities do not show up on the scoresheet.
"Even if he doesn't get assists and goals, he's a pretty consistent contributor as far as drawing fouls and drawing multiple defenders to him and away from his teammates."
Another left-footed playmaker, sophomore Drew Murphy will look to be a leader in the midfield this season after recording the most assists by a UCSB freshman (eight) since 1978 a year ago. He will resume his duties as the team's primary taker of set pieces and corner kicks.
"Where Drew stands out from his peers is his ability to stretch the field, play a long ball, and stand out as a leader," said Vom Steeg.
As freshmen, Murphy and Jome ranked second and third, respectively, among all Big West players in assists. With another year of learning the UCSB system as well as adjusting to the college game, expect both to stick out on the conference leaderboards again this season.
Behind those two offensive creators, Vom Steeg has a deep stable of options to fill out the rest of his midfield.
Another returner, Nick DePuy will be looked to as a ball-winner in the midfleld. Strongly built with a 6-4 frame, DePuy played at both midfield and defense last season. Despite having more of a prototypical center back's physique – he will likely make appearances as a defender as well – he has shown signs he can dominate in the middle of the park as well.
"Where Nick is going to play this season has been a big question mark," said Vom Steeg. "At the end of the day, we don't want to lose his ability to get up into the attack, show confidence on the ball, and provide offense."
Wherever he ends up playing, DePuy will be a primary target on set pieces. Look for the Irvine, Calif. native to crack the scoresheet as well this season – he was the only starter from the 2013 team without a goal or assist despite ranking fourth on the team with 20 shots.
A junior, Marshall Cazares is a bit of a wild card for Vom Steeg. Versatile as they come – he made appearances as a left back, attacking midfielder, and winger last season – Cazares is a dangerous offensive player who, despite being left-footed, can strike with either foot.
Fellow returners Andy Perez and Adam Carn-Saferstein will operate out of the midfield as well. Perez made just eight appearances as a freshman in 2013, but has been one of the more impressive players at camp this summer. Carn-Saferstein provided quality minutes – 19 appearances and nine starts – as a defensive midfielder and outside back last year, and will occupy a similar role for the Gauchos in 2014.
Among the newcomers, freshmen Axel Mendez and Ryo Fujii stand out as potential contributors for the 2014 season. Both starred this past year for the LA Galaxy Academy, one of the top club teams in the country.
Bucking an increasingly popular trend to refrain from playing high school soccer, Mendez was a centerpiece for the 2013-14 CIF Champion Cathedral High Phantoms. Vom Steeg was happy to report that Mendez was "one of the top two or three players" in a recent intersquad match. A type of player who fits the style suggested by his No. 10 shirt, Mendez is known for his ability to see the field well, hit a clever ball, and open up space for his teammates.
Fujii, who moved to the United States at age 13 after being born in Hong Kong, is another player with great technical ability. He should be unfazed by the high level of play in the Big West, as he faced off against the US Men's National Team in a friendly this past spring. No stranger to winning, Fujii was victorious in the Surf Cup, Manchester Cup, and National Cup during his club career.
One of the more interesting stories on the squad, Australian national Dylan Murphy returns to the Gauchos for his junior season after a winding odyssey that saw him spend a season apiece at Kentucky and Santa Barbara City College after making the team at UCSB in 2012. With a 6-0, 180-pound frame, he is the "hardest tackler on the team," according to Vom Steeg, and is thus in line for minutes at defensive mid, center back, and outside back.
Though they were featured in an earlier post breaking down the UCSB defense, Paul Ehmann and Duncan Backus have both appeared at midfield in their college careers and are likely to do so again this season as part of a highly versatile Gauchos lineup.
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.