2007 Men's Soccer Preview: California

Aug. 20, 2007

Courtesy Tim Miguel, California Media Relations

Coming off its first-ever Pac-10 title last season, California seeks to continue its success in 2007. Eighth-year head coach Kevin Grimes looks to a three-member senior class to lead his Golden Bears.

Last season, Grimes' squad produced a 13-6-1 record and a 7-3 Pac-10 mark, which was good enough to claim the conference crown. A sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance led to the overall No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a first-round bye and a 3-1 second-round victory over New Mexico.

Cal lost nine players from 2006 but retains a talented group in addition to a recruiting class that was ranked No. 16 by College Soccer News. Leading the way among the returners is senior forward Javier Ayala-Hil, who led Cal in goals (12) and points (26) last year and was an All-Pac-10 first-team selection. Senior midfielder Andrew Jacobson, a two-time first-team All-Pac-10 choice, was second to Ayala-Hil in shots on goal, as the latter had 24 and Jacobson recorded 21. Senior defender Luke Sassano, sophomore midfielder Imaan Kerchgani and junior midfielder Jacob Wilson were 2006 honorable mention All-Pac-10 picks.

'We are all looking forward to the 2007 season,' Grimes said. 'The 2006 season had some great moments and great success. We hope to continue that momentum with our program and in particular in the 2007 season.'

Ayala-Hil and Wilson give Cal options for another strong frontline. Ayala-Hil, who started every game last year, recorded five game-winning goals in 2006 and scored twice in Cal's 3-1 win over New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA College Cup. Wilson recorded four goals, two assists, and 10 points last season. He also contributed two game-winning goals. Although Ayala-Hil and Wilson are the only two returning forwards, Grimes has brought in five newcomers to add depth at the position - junior Chris Deal and freshmen Demitrius Omphroy, Davis Paul, Scot Van Buskirk and Andrew Wiedeman. Paul was recently selected one of College Soccer News' '100 Freshmen From Coast To Coast To Keep An Eye On.'

'Our forward line is creative and talented,' Grimes said. 'Ayala-Hil and Wilson had breakout seasons for Cal this past year. We also have a number of incoming players who will add quality depth up front.'

Two potent weapons the Bears have at midfielder are Jacobson and sophomore Hector Jimenez. Jacobson brings a lot of experience to the table as he is one of three returning Bears to start all 20 games in 2006. The Palo Alto native also tallied two game-winning goals last season. Jimenez, a member of the U.S. Under-17 National team in 2004-05, led Cal with six assists last year and participated in all 20 games, starting 16 of them.

'Our midfield has always been the strength of our team, particularly the depth,' Grimes said. 'We have plenty of players who can contribute this year. Jacobson and Jimenez had outstanding seasons. Sophomore Ian Ebert, Kerchgani and redshirt freshman Anthony Avalos all made great strides in 2006 and look to have breakout years.'

Kerchgani, Avalos and sophomore Evan Sassano (the younger brother of Luke Sassano) were teammates on the San Juan/Santa Clara Ruckus squad that reached the final in the 2007 McGuire Cup. The trio was also part of a Santa Clara Sporting Ruckus club that won the Under-18 Cal North state championship in 2006. Ebert, meanwhile, is a former member of the Irvine Strikers, one of the top youth clubs in the nation that has produced several veteran Cal players and recent graduates.

Other Bears who will add depth in midfield include juniors Pat Marion and Michael Nieraeth, freshmen A.J. Soares and Servando Carrasco and redshirt freshman Patrick Dolan.

DEFENDERSLuke Sassano will anchor the defense this season, coming off a 2006 campaign that saw him record five assists. Seven of Sassano's 12 shots last year were shots on goal, giving him the highest percentage on the team at .583.

Junior Tyler Barry and sophomore Josh Leon will help round out the defense. Leon will provide depth in what has been a stingy backline under Grimes. Barry will help Sassano with experience and leadership as he is the third returning Bear who started every game in 2006. Sophomore Kyle Rice also looks to make a significant impact.

'The adjustments we have made this past spring in our backline have turned out to be great ones,' Grimes said. 'With the presence of Luke Sassano, Barry, Leon and Nieraeth, our back four hasn't missed a beat. Rice, Evan Sassano and Dolan also look to make a significant contribution to the back four.'

Sophomore Stefan Frei is Cal's lone returning goalkeeper in 2007. Frei competed in six games, starting five of them, last year. Both of his victories were shutouts. In nearly 460 minutes of work, Frei allowed three goals and recorded 18 saves.

Two newcomers will look to make a mark on this year's squad. Junior Patrick Fry joins the Bears after transferring from Cal State Los Angeles and freshman Jordan Bethke rounds out the depth for Cal at keeper.

'Stefan Frei returns after a good freshman season,' Grimes said. 'All three of our goalkeepers have great qualities in their games. This position has the most competition for playing time out of any other on the field.'

SCHEDULEGrimes has compiled yet another challenging schedule in 2007, with Cal playing six teams (Washington, UCLA, Towson, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego State) that reached the 2006 NCAA Tournament, three of which received first-round byes like the Bears (UCLA, Santa Clara and Towson). UCLA reached the College Cup final before falling to UC Santa Barbara, 2-1. Towson wrapped up the season with a record of 15-2-3 and a national ranking of 15.

UCLA, San Diego State and Washington combined with Cal to give the Pac-10 four teams in the postseason. All three also ended the season in the NSCAA's top 25 national rankings, with UCLA ranked second, Cal ranked 12th and Washington ranked 20th.

'Once again Cal is going to have a top 10 strength of schedule ranking,' Grimes said. 'Our players and coaches wouldn't want it any other way.'

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