Men's Soccer Season Preview Pt. III: Young Defense Looks to Make Its Mark

Men's Soccer Season Preview Pt. III: Young Defense Looks to Make Its Mark

This is the last of a three-part, week-long series previewing the upcoming 2016 UCSB men's soccer season ahead of Saturday's campaign-opening exhibition against Westmont. Today's preview will break down UCSB's defenders.

Heading into the new season, UC Santa Barbara will boast returning, proven, experienced starters at five of the six positions at midfield and forward, which is one big reason the team received a No. 13 ranking in the NSCAA Preseason Poll, second-highest of any Western team. 

By contrast, UCSB's defensive corps returns just one player who started last year's Sweet Sixteen game at Clemson, left back Randy Mendoza

Replacing graduated team captain Duncan Backus and the center back pairing of Fuad Adeniyi-Brandon Brockway will be a deep group of newcomers and elder returners who will be asked to shoulder a bigger load this season. 

"The biggest thing about this group is we have added so much depth," said UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg. "We ask a lot of our outside backs as far as getting forward, so we wanted to make sure that we don't wear them down by the end of the season."

The biggest lock for playing time on the defensive end is Mendoza, who didn't take long to win the starting left back spot in 2015 as a transfer from Cal State Los Angeles. The junior started the final 19 games of the season and logged over 1,800 minutes of action.

Those were no easy minutes either, as the Santa Paula native made a habit of making runs up and down the left wing. Mendoza will be asked to be a defensive leader in his junior season.

"Randy had a great summer with Ventura County Fusion," said Vom Steeg. "As the sole returning starter, we expect him to lead the unit by example."

Freshman Kyle Perno, a product of the New York Red Bulls Academy, will slot in behind Mendonza on the depth chart. He was rated as the No. 8 defender of his class by Top Drawer Soccer

"Even though he was a center back in academy, he's shown skill at left back," said Vom Steeg. "He's a tough kid, he connects his passes, and he's a good defender."

On the other side of the field, the right back position has seen two players emerge as potential starters. 

"With Duncan gone and us wanting to keep Andy Perez in the midfield, we've been very pleased that two quality players have stepped up and look ready to hold that spot down," said Vom Steeg. 

Canadian National Team Member and Torono FC Academy product Mateo Restrepo Mejia currently looks to have the upper hand at the position and will likely draw the start against Westmont. 

"This is a kid who spent a year playing in the U-19 Bundesliga and has played with Team Canada, so he certainly has the credentials," said Vom Steeg. "He's a solid right back who executes fundementals well, is a good passer, and can get forward."

Should Vom Steeg want to inject a little more offense on the right wing, he has no hesitation using Johnson & Wales transfer Dalton Pando even though he has never played defender consistently at the competitive level. He certainly has the capability to attack, shown by his school-record 16 goals in 19 games with the Wildcats last year. 

"He's never played right back before, but he has wide attacking credentials," said Vom Steeg. "He really excelled at that spot over the spring and his ability to get forward is as good as anyone on this team."

Whereas the two outside positions are more or less defined, a group of five players with differents strengths are vying for the two center back spots.

"That's our big jigsaw puzzle right now," said Vom Steeg. "We have the pieces, it's just a matter of seeing how they fit. We're not 100% sure how it will look right now, but we're confident that by the end of the year it will be a strength."

The elder statesmen among the potential center backs is junior Jeff Quezada, a veteran of 35 NCAA games and a member of the 2014 Big West All-Freshman team. He is the most experienced candidate and has the ability to play either center back spot. 

Perhaps the most exciting player in UCSB's freshman class is Oklahoma City native Lamar Batista, who is likely to draw the start at left center back on Saturday. Standing 6-5, he was a key member of one of the most dominant high school programs in the country at Heritage Hall, which won three state championships during his tenure. Despite playing exclusively at center back, he produced 25 goals in his career. He also won five club state championships with Oklahoma FC. 

"Lamar has had a great camp," said Vom Steeg. "He's a highly touted prospect and we're extremely happy to have him on our team. We think he is going to be a huge part of this program for years to come."

A familiar face sure to see plenty of time is right-footed sophomore Sam Strong who featured in plenty of games last year as a true freshman before seeing his action limited by hip injuries. The strong, physical defender also added a pair of goals off set pieces. 

"Sam is at 100% heading into this season," said Vom Steeg. "He played well last year before the injuries, so we're excited to get him back out there."

After spending two seasons up top, junior Alex Liua will try his hand at center back this season after being convered during the spring. With two years of college experience and the ability to battle any forward physically, he figures to draw time as well.

"He's only been playing there for about six months, but he's done really well," said Vom Steeg.

Finally, German national and Div. II Northwestern Nazarene transfer Jan Ilskens was slated to be a big part of the center back equation, but he will miss the first few weeks of the season nursing an injury. Upon his return, he figures to play a big role on the back line. 

In goal, two talented keepers are fighting it out for the starting spot: junior Brandon Berke and freshman Titouan Le Roux

"These are two goalies with completely different skill sets," said Vom Steeg. "Whoever plays to their strengths the best will earn the job, but our team is confident and loves playing behind both guys."

The team's starting goalie as a true freshman in 2014, Berke also started against South Carolina last year in the NCAA tournament, so he has plenty of experience at the collegiate level. He is regarded as an athletic, physical keeper who is dependable yet can come up with big saves.

Le Roux comes to UCSB from France, where he most recently played with the US Orleans Loiret Football club. In his home country, he played against the academy teams for prestigious clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Marseille. 

"Titouan is more of a finesse goalie," said Vom Steeg. "He's very cerebral and understands the game well. He is very good at organizing and communicating with his defense, and he also skilled with the ball at his feet."

The French newcomer has a slight advantage heading into the season, as he is likely set to play all 90 minutes against the Warriors after Berke picked up a minor injury in training. 

UCSB's annual scrimmage against Westmont this Saturday will kick off an 11-game home schedule featuring some of the biggest names in west coast soccer like UCLA, Cal, UC Irvine, Cal Poly, and LMU.

To reserve your season tickets today, click here or call the UCSB Athletics Ticket Office at 805-893-UCSB (8272).