2008 Season Preview
Aug. 27, 2008
Riding the wave of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, the Washington men's soccer team has a great deal to look forward to in 2008. The goal reaching the College Cup is not an unrealistic expectation for these Huskies, who dream of going farther in the postseason than any other UW team before them.
Seventeen-year head coach Dean Wurzberger, who reached the 200 career-win milestone last season, will have much to work with when he welcomes his team back to Montlake. The Huskies return their entire midfield and defensive corps from last year, including eight players that started both NCAA Tournament games in 2007.
Add to the mix a talented group of newcomers, many of whom could make an immediate impact on the squad, and Washington has a recipe for success when they take to the pitch starting Aug. 29.
Year in and year out, the Huskies have made a habit of reaching the NCAA Tournament, making the postseason field 11 times in the last 13 years and 19 times overall. But longevity in the tournament continues to be a goal for a team that's school-record finish was a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2003.
The last two second-round appearances were good, but Wurzberger wants something better.
'There is no question in my mind the only goal we haven't accomplished yet continues to be success in the postseason,' Wurzberger said. `I think that will happen this year where we break through and get to those final rounds of play. The formula is known and I like what I see in our players. They embrace the idea of doing something no team has ever done before at Washington. If we can pick up a Pac-10 Championship along the way that would be a great accomplishment, but we think the postseason is our highest priority.'
The key to making that goal a reality will be to find the offensive threat the Huskies lost with the graduation of senior forwards Ely Allen and Kevin Forrest. That is where Wurzberger will rely on the talent of his incoming group, as well as some positional changes.
'It's going to be clear that we can defend well, we can keep the ball and prepare the game,' Wurzberger said. 'We have to figure out who can score goals for us. That will be the theme for this year - who will score and how.'
Among the top returners Wurzberger will rely heavily on are seniors George John and Raphael Cox. After earning All-Pac-10 first-team honors last season and his second-straight nod to the All-Region team, John will be poised for an All-America-worthy campaign. A co-captain for the second-straight year, John will share the leadership duties with junior goalkeeper Rylan Hawkins. Cox, a second-team All-Pac-10 honoree, will also be looked upon to provide leadership from his midfield post.
John will be one of the players Wurzberger could look to for making positional changes in the year ahead. After playing his freshman and sophomore seasons in the attacking center-midfield spot, John transitioned to the center of defense late last year and might be used again in the same role.
Other players who could see some change include junior Casey Cunningham returning to the backline, junior Taylor Hoss moving into the midfield and sophomore Matt Van Houten moving into a forward position. All three were major contributors in 2007, a group also joined by sophomore defenders Brad Keller and Taylor Mueller.
On paper the Huskies are young with a roster boasting 14 underclassmen and 10 upperclassmen, but it is deceivingly so. Of the five returning sophomores, four were regular starters as true freshmen including Keller, Mueller and Van Houten.
Add to that a battle between a pair of experienced goalkeepers - junior Rylan Hawkins, who was the starting netminder in 2006, and redshirt-sophomore Stephen Fung, who tended goal in 2007 - and the ingredients are in place for playing soccer in December.
It's safe to say that goalkeeping will be one of the Huskies' strengths this season. UW will be in good hands whether it's Hawkins or Fung who end up manning the net.
Hawkins established himself as one of the best goalies in the conference as just a redshirt-freshman in 2006, earning the starting role and turning in a strong season that featured seven shutouts. But a serious early-season injury took him out of commission last year and Fung, originally slated for the role as a back-up, took over the reigns and didn't skip a beat, shutting down some big opponents himself.
While Fung came out of the spring season with a hold on the starting job, both players will battle it out in a platoon situation during the non-conference slate.
'We can win with both, that's for sure,' Wurzberger said. 'Who comes out of that fight, only time will tell. That competition between the two of them will produce some high-level performances.'
The goalkeeper of the future is incoming freshman Brooks Hopp, who established himself as a stellar keeper in the club ranks.
Building on the play of goalkeepers Hawkins and Fung, the backline will be another strength for the Huskies in the fall. The defense will feature returning starters, but UW fans may see a few old faces in some new places.
As he did late last year, Wurzberger and his staff could look to use John as a central defender, paired alongside Cunningham, who has split his time between the midfield and backline the last two seasons.
'They are quite possibly the two most dominant players in the conference and there won't be a better tandem should they work well together,' Wurzberger said. 'They are both being converted, but good players can make that kind of adjustment relatively easy.'
Mueller, who occupied a center spot as a freshman, will then probably move to an outside right back position. Along with Mueller, junior Adam Lang could also see time on the right side. At the left back position, last year's starter Brad Keller returns but is coming off an injury that kept him out of spring play. A healthy Keller should occupy that role, but redshirt-freshman Jamie Finch will also battle for minutes. Finch redshirted 2007 due to injury.
Incoming freshmen that could challenge for time will be Matt Berry, a natural lefty who could battle for the left-back position. Tyler Klein and Kohl Schoening figure to be the centerbacks of the future and will be understudies to John and Cunningham. Niki Chow will also provide some added depth in the back.
A player who served a huge role in the Husky backline the last two seasons, Hoss, will probably now see the most time at center mid. Hoss, a model of consistency who has played every game of his career and started all but one, will be used to anchor the midfield.
Joining Hoss in the center could be a true freshman, quite possibly Dylan Tucker-Gangnes or Casey McCool, who Wurzberger thinks could be a great compliment to the veteran in the middle. Junior Taylor Cochran, who saw some valuable minutes as a reserve last year, is a utility-type player that will be looked upon to contribute in the center midfield spot as well.
Van Houten played on the right last season while an injured Jo Jo Katz sat on the sidelines. With Katz now back, he will probably take on that role while Van Houten is transitioned into a forward position. Junior Daniel Phelps has also played on the right side and will provide depth.
On the left side, Cox appears to have that position in hand, having started in that spot for much of the last two seasons. Wurzberger might also convert one of his left fullbacks into a midfield role, possibly Keller if Finch or Berry grab a firm hold on the left back position.
Another contributor to the midfield will be senior transfer Josh Swett, a Northwest native who played his first three years at Manhatten College and returns here for his final collegiate season. Swett, an attacking mid, is similar in size to Katz and shares his speed and quickness.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, the question wasn't if the Husky frontline would produce goals, it was how many would they score? This season, Wurzberger has nothing but questions. But the good news is he will have a talented pool to draw from when forming his a new attacking corps.
As previously mentioned, Van Houten who excelled in the midfield as a true freshman, could be transitioned into a forward, a place he played during the spring season with success.
The opportunity should also present itself for freshman Brent Richards to see playing time. Richards, a native of Camas, Wash., was the 2008 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Washington and led his high school squad to a pair of 3A state titles in 2006 and 2008.
The Huskies face another challenging schedule in 2008 with a slate that features seven teams that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Among those squads will be 2007 NCAA semifinalist Virginia Tech, as well as second-round teams Furman, UCLA and California.
Like they always do, the Huskies will open up the regular season at the Nike Portland Invitational over Labor Day weekend. UW will play Fairleigh Dickinson in its season-opener on Aug. 29, followed by an early-season test with Virginia Tech on Aug. 31.
The Huskies will take a cross-country trip to Furman, S.C., to face Charleston and the host Paladins at the Diadora/Spinx Furman Invitational, Sept. 5 and Sept. 7. Then its back to the West Coast to face Northwest rival Portland on the road (Sept. 12), host the Husky Fever Classic featuring Cal State Fullerton and New Mexico (Sept. 19 and 21) and then host Gonzaga (Sept. 28) before opening Pac-10 play on Oct. 3 with Stanford.
'We're happy with the schedule,' Wurzberger said. 'It has all the teams we need to play and hopefully we'll have the success to ensure us a good shot at getting into the postseason.'
And if the Huskies have anything to say about it, they will be playing much deeper in the tournament than the opening rounds.