PASADENA (Aug. 30, 2018) – What the 2018 Caltech men's soccer team lacks in raw numbers they more than account for as the most talented and most disciplined group in Head Coach Phil Murray's four years with the team. After knocking on the door of SCIAC wins over the last few seasons, there is a belief within the program that 2018 could be the year the Beavers take a big step forward, much like the volleyball team did last year.
"There's a good pressure, but there's pressure from seeing the other programs have success," Head Coach Phil Murray said. "It's great and everybody wants to be a part of it, but it also turns the spotlight back on the teams that still need to have that success and these guys are feeling the burden of being the next team to get over the line and I certainly know we are not far away."
While this team is yet to see the SCIAC success other Caltech programs have, the men's team did have some success in the SCIAC postseason awards, with junior forward Kevin Yu (Park Ridge, N.J. / Park Ridge) earning second-team honors and sophomore keeper Joe Como (Glen Cove, N.Y. / Friends Acad.) being named SCIAC Newcomer of the Year. Beneath the individual success, the Beavers are returning seven players out of an eight-man freshman class from one year ago, all of whom were called upon to play important minutes in 2017. Four more freshmen will mix in with the squad this year, namely attacking midfielders Samir Johnson (Portland, Ore. / Jesuit) and Mohamed Soufi (San Jose, Calif. / Lynbrook) in addition to defenders Daniel Israel (San Jose, Calif. / Lynbrook) and Velissarios Christodolou (Athens, Greece / Athens College). Each player shares the commonality of size in addition to the physicality necessary to create more scoring opportunities for the Beavers going forward.
"We've got four new guys joining us, with some great athleticism and talent, combined with high level club soccer experience, who I think could have an immediate impact on most soccer programs in the conference," Murray said. "They're all good soccer players and we've added a bit of depth in the back four since they can all play several different positions while bringing the college physicality that's necessary to compete at this level."
Como's Newcomer of the Year campaign where he stopped 159 shots in 18 games was certainly aided by an athletic defense led by sophomores JD Walker (Grand Blanc, Mich. / Grand Blanc) and Andrew Larson (Portland, Ore. / Jesuit), in addition to defensive midfielders like junior Theo Yang (Columbia, Md. / Long Reach) and sophomore Chad Thut (Dover, N.H. / Berwick Acad.) who will enter the season with another year's experience filed away. Added depth could further allow Murray to put his defensive standouts in even more advantageous positions as the Beavers look to increase their scoring output for the upcoming season after finding the back of the net on six occasions last year. Sophomore forward Gianfranco de Castro (Weston, Fla. / Cypress Bay) notched half the goals to lead the team.
"I think despite our small numbers, the quality from the starting guys all the way through the last guy is very tight," Murray said. "There's not just one starting group of guys we expect to play all the minutes. I think the freshman we've brought in will have an immediate impact and it will be good to see the different teams that we're able to put out depending on how we're doing physically and how our opposition are playing. We do have the ability to change the way we play now because we have different pieces within the team."
The biggest key to this team's success, however, will simply boil down to getting over the hump. Last year's squad saw two prime opportunities to notch the men's soccer team's first SCIAC win since 2011 and first under Murray. The first chance came at Occidental College while the second came at home against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges in an overtime thriller. The ability of these student-athletes to learn and adapt could cause tremendous growth among the young team, and if so could allow the Beavers to get that elusive first win out of the way.
Of course, as many teams preceding this year's men's soccer team have learned, the first win is always the toughest.
"I think because we had such a big group of freshmen, it brought this wave of optimism, but also unfamiliarity," Murray said. "That doesn't take away from the fact that it's very hard to win SCIAC games. Just having good players and enthusiasm doesn't necessarily mean you're going to see results. I think the lesson learned was that we need to maintain the optimism, but also continue to improve. It's 'come here, be better than you may have been in the past and then work to get better as a group.' If we can do that, we will chip away at the distance between us and other SCIAC teams."
The men's soccer team opens the season on Friday, Aug. 31 at home against Linfield College, 4 p.m. start time.