Men's Soccer Season Preview
Aug. 31, 2009
The Washington men's soccer team kicks off its 2009 season on Tuesday, Sept. 1 at cross-town rival Seattle University at 4 p.m. They are slated to play their first home match on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. against Portland.
Few times in Dean Wurzberger's 18-year tenure as the Washington men's soccer head coach has he found his team in a position of being an underdog heading into the season. And even fewer times has Wurzberger found himself without a returning superstar to carry the team on the pitch.
But those are the challenges presented to Wurzberger in 2009 as he tries to get the Huskies back into the national spotlight after a one-year hiatus. And frankly, Wurzberger relishes the challenge.
Gone are stars Raphael Cox and George John, the latter of which missed the final five games of the 2008 season, during the which the Huskies went 0-4-1 over the home stretch after an 8-5-1 start to fall out of contention for not just a Pac-10 title but an NCAA Tournament berth. It marked just the third time in the last 14 years the Huskies have missed the postseason.
The Huskies do not return a First Team All-Pac-10 player for the first time since 2002 and they return just one player - Taylor Mueller - who made the Second Team. Wurzberger believes this lack of headlining players will lead to a team that is just that - a team.
'Injuries really cost us last season and George's injury was catastrophic. One individual should not make that much difference but they do sometimes and that was the case,' Wurzberger said. 'We're a different team in that regard. If George was the star last year, we don't have any this year. It's a team effort which I'm really excited about. A lot of great things happen when people focus on the team effort. I'm looking forward to that challenge. Early indications in preseason are very optimistic. We've looked very good in some areas and we've got a long way to go but we do have depth and I do think if we make the team the star, we will see individuals shine.'
The Huskies are two- and sometimes three-deep strong in every position after having players out of position in 2008. They have also shifted some players into new positions to suit their strengths better. And they have veteran leadership all over the field to supplement some strong young talent.
'There's no question our depth last season really killed us. But that's in the past and one of things the 2009 team features is way more depth. We have recruited well in positions of need, especially up front,' Wurzberger said. 'We were woefully in need of strikers and people who could help us score and we fortified another important position - the midfield - where really we relied upon a freshman class to go the whole way in their first year. If you look at their performances, especially in those last 10 days, literally everyone, to a man, dropped off. If someone was physically worn down, we were really handcuffed in terms of being able to put someone else in there.'
The Huskies will have the benefit of a strong senior class which is determined to go out on a better note after last season left a bitter taste in their mouths.
'We are hoping, planning and relying on our six seniors, which is a large senior class with a lot of experience and knows all well the disappointment of last year,' Wurzberger said. 'They're determined to make their last season a special season. They have to lead the way. Coaches in the past say a player's senior year needs to be the best of their four years so if we can get something like that out of them, we think we're going to be in business.'
Among the senior class are a handful of players who could emerge as those 'superstars' the team currently lacks, at least in terms of outside recognition. Goalkeeper and co-captain Rylan Hawkins is finally healthy and ready to show off his talent and leadership abilities in a full season, while right in front of him, defender and fellow captain Taylor Hoss will lead the Husky defense, which featured three All-Pac-10 players last year in Hoss (honorable mention), Mueller (second team) and Casey Cunningham (honorable mention).
The senior Cunningham will make the switch to center-forward where he and Taylor Cochran will show off their offensive skills as Wurzberger hopes to see more production from his upperclassmen.
'This team reminds me a little of the 2003 squad,' Wurzberger said of his most successful team in terms of NCAA performance. 'We certainly didn't have any stars going into that year but our senior class ended up being stars and that was a record-setting year for us. We've never gone further than that team did in getting to the third round. There are some comparisons to that season although certainly no two seasons are the same and no two teams are the same but we have leadership, continuity from a large amount of returners, we've got youth and we've got experience and I'm pretty confident I know the challenges ahead so I hope they believe in the leadership of the staff and where we've taken them and how we have prepared them. So far it looks like we're all on schedule.'
The underclassmen made a huge impact in 2008 as far as points were concerned, as freshmen Brent Richards and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes opened eyes, with Richards leading the team in goals scored and Tucker-Gangnes tying for the team lead in assists.
The Huskies will be able to ease their freshmen into the action this season more so than last season, but Wurzberger still expects to get some contributions out of a talented rookie class, which includes defender Will Pleskow and midfielders Quinton Beasley and Ryan Moore.
'Our freshman class is exactly what we thought it would be,' Wurzberger said. 'There are some decent quality players there - young and raw - but something to work with so we're very happy with those players.'
The Huskies were also able to add Nick James, a transfer from Seattle University, who will help immediately in the midfield as Tucker-Gangnes works through injuries.
Wurzberger and the Huskies definitely feel they have something to prove in 2009 and hope they can surprise some people who may have some doubts about a team that coming off a down year.
'We're poised to surprise some people because we were picked fourth in the conference, as you would without any stars, so we might have an opportunity to catch some people thinking they might have an easier time with us than they will,' Wurzberger said. 'I'm very optimistic with the team's efforts with the seniors leading the way and the attitude they have to bounce back from last year. All those things play in our favor. We are a little hungry, and hunger, determination and drive are really things we've tried to emphasize going into the season. We also have our pride to think about. We want to get our school back to where it's been in the past. We haven't won anything in a while so winning the conference tile, getting back in the playoffs and making a deep run are high on our outcome goal list, as they are every year.'
Wurzberger is excited about having Rylan Hawkins for an entire season after the senior suffered a serious facial injury during a game in 2007. Hawkins returned for half of the 2008 season and played well, but will look to break out in 2009 and have a career-year. He was solid in his freshman season, starting all 18 games he played in and posting seven shutouts, the kind of form he hopes to build off while finally being at 100 percent.
Right behind Hawkins is junior Stephen Fung, who played well in Hawkins' absence last season, posting one shutout in 11 starts. Sophomore Brooks Hopp, who redshirted last season, will add solid depth to the goalkeeping corp.
'We're good in goal, we have good depth,' Wurzberger said. 'We have a veteran player and co-captain in Rylan. He has all the physical tools, skills and experience to have a break-out season for us. A big season from him is definitely part of our plan.'
The Huskies should be very strong on defense as they return a couple of key players from last season.
Senior captain Taylor Hoss will hold down the center of the back along with junior Taylor Mueller, who was named Second Team All-Pac-10 in 2008. Adding depth to their positions will be sophomores Kohl Schoening and Tyler Klein.
At the outside back positions, junior Jamie Finch and senior Adam Lang will look to add to the deep and experienced defense in front of Hawkins as they look to improve on last year's 1.49 goals against average. They will be backed up by freshman Will Pleskow and sophomore Matt Berry.
'The combination of Hoss and Klein playing alongside each other has gone very well. That was probably the strongest part of our team in our first exhibition,' Wurzberger said. 'Taylor Hoss will be a key player for us this season. We need Taylor to direct our team on the field and show the same consistency that has made him so important to our team for the past three seasons. Taylor's play will be a key factor in both our team's defending and attacking effectiveness.'
The Huskies are looking to change up their formation this season to make for a more attacking midfield, which includes two central strikers who look to add to an already strong front line.
The formation paid off in its unveiling in an exhibition against Trinity Western as the Huskies broke out for four goals, two of which were scored by senior Taylor Cochran.
On the left side of the midfield, junior Matt Van Houten looks to have a breakout year as he is finally healthy and will look to add some scoring punch. On the other side of the field, prized freshman Ryan Moore has emerged as a legitimate threat to start in his first season, already showing a knack for scoring in the preseason.
The middle of the field will be held down by Cochran, transfer Nick James and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, who the coaches are hoping recovers from a back injury to regain the solid form showed in his freshman year.
The Huskies look strong on the front line, led by sophomore Brent Richards, who led the team with eight goals scored as a freshman. Senior Casey Cunningham also makes the move from midfield to forward and will look to share in the scoring load.
'We expect those two to be a real double threat to the opponent's defense,' Wurzberger said. 'Brent has shown the ability to score goals at the collegiate level and Casey is a conversion player from the midfield line and he shows all the signs that he will have a big attacking impact on our team. If we can get both players into scoring positions on a regular basis, we believe they can get us goals.'
If UW is to get back to their winning ways, they will have to do it against some stiff competition. The Huskies feature a tough pre-conference schedule, including pre-season No. 6 Creighton No. 21 Saint Louis and No. 23 Cal Poly along with an always tough Pac-10 schedule, headed by No. 8 Cal and No. 19 UCLA.
'The Pac-10 continues to be a tough conference and we have a goal this season of winning it,' Wurzberger said. 'UCLA always boasts a roster full of star youth players, Cal has shown the toughness and consistency that it takes to be successful and do it with consistency, San Diego State and Stanford will have quality new recruits with lots of potential and Oregon State is under new leadership so it will be interesting to see how they react. All in all, another tough challenge in the Pac-10 but we are looking forward to it.'
A few key wins early including an upset here and there will get the confidence back and should get the Huskies back into the national spotlight, where they have been for most of Wurzberger's reign.
'Last year was way off what our normal expectation is,' the Huskies leader said. 'We started strong but collapsed at the end which was unusual for us given the last two years when we came on strong at the end. That just goes to show you nothing from the past matters. You have to deliver season in and season out.'