Season preview: Experience, depth has men's soccer looking like a contender
Henry Ellis had to keep checking his ID in 2010 to see if his name had been changed to Murphy, because everything that could go wrong for his University of Colorado Colorado Springs soccer team did go wrong.
The Mountain Lions lost Scott Kocel for the duration before the season even started. Next, three key international players, Mathew Cox from New Zealand, Gabriel Causse from France and Mash Shaswar from England all went down in the season's first few games.
Before the injuries hit, Midwestern State, the eventual national runner-up, barely squeaked out a 1-0 win despite UCCS playing a man down for 52 minutes after a controversial red card. Depleted as they were, though, the Mountain Lions scuffled to 2-11-1 start.
Causse and Shaswar returned later in the season and freshman goalkeeper Brandon Costa, who was forced into action because of injuries to starter Adam Liszewski, matured quickly as UCCS won three of its final four matches.
All of that is history. As UCCS prepares for its season opener on Thursday at Colorado College, the Mountain Lions are loaded.
"The big difference for us from last year to this year is the injury bug that hit us last year. We lost so many guys," said Ellis. "Matt Friesen had to really take the team on his shoulders and it was a lot of pressure for him."
Any conversation about UCCS soccer the past three seasons has begun with Friesen, who has been the team's leading scorer in each. With 25 goals, Friesen enters his senior season fourth in the UCCS career records book. Add his 14 assists and Friesen is third in points with 64.
"This year he doesn't really have that pressure," said Ellis. "There's a lot of other guys that can score and I think it's made it more enjoyable for him. He's looked really, really sharp."
Joining Friesen up top will be Cox, who has shown no reduction in the speed that made him a member of the New Zealand Under 20 National Team. The combination of Cox's speed and Friesen's power game should give UCCS its most potent forward tandem since Kevin Noleen and Adrian Marrero.
Setting up the forwards from the wing will be Kocel and Shaswar. Kocel brings remarkable speed to chase down balls in the corner while Shaswar brings deft ballhandling and a big leg.
Since both forwards and outside midfielders have a high work rate, depth is critical. The Mountain Lions have it.
Up top, powerful Justin Miller joins freshman sensation Brandon Vogphackdy in giving UCCS a second potent scoring tandem, while Austin Bell's experience from last season gives Ellis options. At the wing, veterans Causse, Eric Goldberg and Jabari Shaw are joined by newcomers Justin Shalongo and Marshall Hiner.
"There's not much difference when we are making a sub for almost any position on the field, which is definitely a good thing for us," said Ellis.
As an illustration of the team's depth, the eight returners who are currently penciled in to come off the UCCS bench accounted for 55 starts a season ago.
"A lot of guys got a lot of playing time because of the injuries last year," said Ellis. "That was definitely good for them. I think the key for this year is, if something similar happens, we have a lot of depth."
Marc Kocel, Scott's brother, transferred to UCCS from Division I Denver and will join junior Brett Drefs in the center midfield. Both are strong and skilled, which will mean more possessions and, with those, more chances for the forwards and wings to go to work.
Sophomore Kyle Lee and freshman James Roberts will be on call in either of the center mids need a break.
The greatest competition so far this fall has been at goalkeeper, where Costa is trying to hold of challenges from Jarod Thomas, Kevin Barthe and Chris Johnson.
"He definitely had to grow up fast," said Ellis of Costa, who was forced to make eight starts as a freshman. "He's battling right now for the starting job. If we had to go today, I don't know if I could make a decision on who would start right now. But that's a good thing."
Costa posted a respectable 1.47 goals against average despite often having a patchwork lineup in front of him. Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off an All-American season at Lincoln Junior College. Barthe was a club soccer legend in Colorado Springs and has been playing in advanced men's leagues the past couple of seasons. Johnson is a freshman from Palmer high school who, while running behind the other three right now, is very athletic and could be a future star.
While the keepers are all solid, it's the defense in front of them that has generated optimism from the coaching staff that includes Ellis, Liszewski and Johnnie Keen.
"Defensively, we're really good at closing down we are pretty solid one-v-one," said Ellis. "They've just done a great job organizing."
Carlos Verdugo, a senior from Mexico, is the rock around which the defense is built. Joining him at center defender will be Max Thomas, a transfer from Highline Community College in Washington. A pair of skilled newcomers, Kyle Thomas and Taylor Ferguson will man the two outside spots.
The depth at defender is particularly strong, with Colton Brisco, Keenan Forder and Kyle Tetrault all having gained considerable experience as first-year Mountain Lions in 2010. Freshman Erik Donovan also factors into the mix.
With so many new faces among the starters, gaining cohesion has been the greatest challenge.
"The biggest thing for us right now is to complete our chemistry as the preseason's winding down," said Ellis.
When asked what fans could expect from the Mountain Lions in 2011, Ellis, who is entering his fourth season, was reluctant to wax too poetic. In the end, though, containing his optimism proved to be difficult.
"We can go really far in our conference this year," he said. "I know our conference is really tough, but I think this is the strongest team I've put together since I've been here."
UCCS Players/Staff Featured
|Additional News Stories|
|December 13, 2011||Friesen, Verdugo garner all-region honors||UCCS Mountain Lions Carlos Verdugo and Matt Friesen named to the 2011 Daktronics Men’s Soccer All-Central Region second-teams. Friesen was also named second-team all-region by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.|
|November 2, 2011||Four Mountain Lions named to all-RMAC men's soccer team||The University of Colorado Colorado Springs men's soccer team has four selections to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference all-conference teams. Two of the UCCS men were selected to the second team and two were selected to the third team.|
|November 1, 2011||Season ends with overtime loss to Mines in RMAC playoffs||GOLDEN, Colo. – A Baski Baker goal 1:38 into overtime ended the University of Colorado Colorado Springs men’s soccer season as the Mountain Lions fell 2-1 to the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers Tuesday afternoon at CSM Soccer Stadium.|
|October 31, 2011||UCCS to face Mines in playoff game on Tuesday||COLORADO SPRINGS - The University of Colorado Colorado Springs men's soccer team's first foray into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference playoffs since 2003 will begin on Tuesday with a match against the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers in Golden at 2:30 p.m.|
|October 30, 2011||Two Scott Kocel goals lead UCCS past Colorado Christian||COLORADO SPRINGS – Scott Kocel scored both goals as the University of Colorado Colorado Springs completed the regular season with a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Christian Cougars Sunday afternoon at Mountain Lion Stadium.|