New Players Should Keep SDSU’s Soccer Team Prominent, but Aztecs First Must Come Together as They Did in ’87 : Time for a 1-Year Reunion
Chuck Clegg’s office phone rings more frequently these days. Kyle Whittemore doesn’t get ignored by his professors. Chris Keenan has longer conversations with the attendants at Pacific Bell.
Such are results of the 1987 San Diego State men’s soccer season. Tonight at 7:30 against Masters College in the Aztec Bowl, the team opens its first season since achieving national notoriety.
SDSU went to the NCAA playoffs last year seeded 24th out of 24 teams, then won four consecutive road games. Clemson edged the Aztecs, 2-0, in the NCAA final, but it was nonetheless the most successful soccer finish in the school’s history. Record: 20-6. Achieved on just 2.6 scholarships. Thus the attention.
Clegg, the Aztec coach, got frequent calls during the off-season from players wanting to transfer to SDSU. Not just good players, either. Great ones, such as Marcelo Balboa, the first alternate on the U.S. Olympic team. He’s now SDSU’s starting sweeper.
Whittemore, a senior who is the Aztecs’ all-time leading scorer, finds he gets more respect these days. People used to say “Oh, you play on the soccer team. Big deal.” That has changed.
Last fall, Whittemore was having trouble in a finance class. He went for help, but the professor didn’t have time. Then, during the playoffs, the professor found out he was on the soccer team. The problems ended.
“He apologized for blowing me off,” Whittemore said. “He’d announce (who I was) in the middle of class.”
Keenan, a sweeper last season who will return as Clegg’s graduate assistant, is still noticing the effects of ’87. He called Pacific Bell the other day to get his phone service started. The attendant found out he was on the soccer team and talked his ear off.
“She said ‘You play on the soccer team? Congratulations.’ Suddenly she was talking to me for five minutes about how well we did. She was saying how great it is for San Diego and how proud she is of what we did.”
So things appear better than ever. Clegg has eight skillful transfers, all eligible because their previous coaches signed releases allowing them to compete. He also has a bigger paycheck, 2.4 more scholarships, and a courtesy car.
SDSU is overflowing with talent. But talent can be like a loaded gun; it must be used properly. In an exhibition against the alumni Saturday, the Aztecs didn’t perform like a championship team and lost, 2-0. They seemed to have left something in the ’87 scrapbook.
Opposing his former teammates, Keenan wasn’t pleased with what he saw. Few players, he said, were putting out much effort. There was no communication. No spirit.
During the third quarter, Keenan got into a scuffle with midfielder Ken Taylor. Taylor gave him an elbow, and Keenan returned a fist. The incident didn’t upset Keenan. He saw it as an indication that Taylor was playing to win.
“I like the intensity,” Keenan said. “He’s there to win, and he’s there to fight. I don’t respect a player if he goes out there and gives an inch.”
Clegg’s main concern is establishing a consistent level of intensity and unity. Talent alone, he says, will not win a championship.
“Sometimes there’s a danger when you have success the year before that you think success will just come because you’re a good team,” Clegg said. “Good players are good players, but what makes them great players are making the sacrifices necessary to step it up to the next level. Right now we have to work on those things.”
Last year, the Aztecs were a tight group. They enjoyed a joke or two, had occasional differences but always worked them out, much like a family. In three of four playoff victories, the Aztecs came from behind. This year there are a lot of new faces, and, so far, the team is divided.
“It’s really weird,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of skillful players, but there’s just no heart. We get on the field, and we’re just flat.”
Whittemore said: “It’s just frustrating at the start not being at the level we were at last year. We just have to get used to playing together.”
If and when that happens, the results could be spectacular. Consider the players. In goal is Bryan Finnerty, who allowed just 15 goals in 16 games last year.
Balboa at sweeper. Keenan admits, if a little reluctantly, his replacement will more than make up for his absence.
“It’s hard for a player to say that,” Keenan said. “But there’s no question (Balboa) is way better than me in nearly every aspect of the game.”
Kevin Jauch, a transfer from the U.S. Naval Academy, and returner Brad Walsh solidify the defense. Taylor, Robbie Goff, from Seattle Pacific, and Mark Sweet are experienced midfielders.
Up front, Whittemore and Eric Wynalda, who combined for 28 goals last season, should give defenders and goalies a few headaches.
Expectations are high. People keep telling the players “you’ve got to go back this year and win one more game.” Freshmen touring Aztec Bowl are told by the guide how great the soccer team is.
“People don’t realize that this was the second-highest finish in (any varsity sport in) the history of the school,” Clegg said. (The 1973 Aztec men’s volleyball team won the national championship.) “They don’t realize that we played every playoff game on the road. And they don’t know how difficult that was. When all was said and done you realize how amazing it was.”
Clegg says his goal this season is not to win the national championship but to continue progressing. Soon, he’d like Aztec soccer to be fully funded with 11 scholarships. He’d like his teams to makes the playoffs 3 or 4 years out of every 5.
“Once you do that you’ll have a legitimate shot at the playoffs year in and year out,” he said.
Attitude may dictate success or failure. The secret’s out. Other teams know what to expect. Now the Aztecs have to figure out how much to expect from themselves.
“A lot of players who have had just one year have just seen success,” Whittemore said. “And they expect it right now. There should be people killing each other in practice trying to win a spot, and there’s really not.”
If Clegg has his way, that will change.
“I think there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “It’s a long haul.”