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Kicking It Into High Gear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Coach Marwan Ass’ad is fired up, and anyone who knows him knows what that means.

He is animated and loud.

“A whole new team, man,” shouted Ass’ad, the Cal State Northridge men’s soccer coach. “I love new teams.”

Part of Ass’ad’s zeal stems from a rollback of budgetary cutbacks imposed on the Northridge program earlier this year. Additional funds were pumped into soccer in June, boosting the team’s scholarship level to close to where it was last season.

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But most of Ass’ad’s optimism comes from his players, 15 of whom have freshman eligibility.

“We’re gonna be good, man,” Ass’ad said. “We’re gonna win.”

Of course, he has promised as much before.

Ass’ad was nearly as giddy a year ago when he touted four freshmen--goalkeeper Zoltan Nagy, forward Juan Sastoque and defenders Danny Nishiyama and Josh Isaac.

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What was delivered was less than inspiring. The Matadors won two of their first seven games and played porous defense before finishing 9-8-2. The team was 3-3-1 in the Pacific Division of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, narrowly missing the conference playoffs.

Since the end of last season, Nagy and Isaac transferred, Sastoque left to start a professional soccer career and Nishiyama quit the sport.

No matter. Ass’ad insists this season will be different. Of his nine true freshmen recruits, several come from Southern California’s best club programs. Most of the rookies have played for Ass’ad or one of his former players at the club level, so they are already familiar with the coach’s system.

“These kids come from stable backgrounds and they’re disciplined on the field,” Ass’ad said, pounding his fist on a counter for emphasis. “They didn’t play street soccer, they’re well-coached.”

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Among the most-promising recruits are several with local ties--Michael Preis of Chatsworth High, Danny Ortega of Birmingham, Federico Arroyo of Van Nuys and Luis Castro of Cleveland. Junior college transfers Luis Cruz and Kris Swanson also are expected to have an impact.

Preis, Swanson and freshman Gavin Hewitt, a Washington native, will compete for the starting forward positions. At midfield, Ortega and Arroyo are likely starters in the center, flanked by Castro on the right and Cruz on the left.

Fifth-year senior Chuck Gordon will start in the center of defense and redshirt freshman Victor Lopez as goalkeeper. The other defensive positions remain unsettled.

Shifting finances in the Northridge athletic program in the off-season hit soccer hard.

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Ass’ad’s salary was cut in half, he lost about 25% of the team’s scholarship funds and the Matadors’ schedule was shortened slightly.

"[The cuts were] reality and it hit home,” Ass’ad said. “But the talent of our players makes me forget about that.

“I think I have a good group of men to make a statement on the field that [the administration] can’t afford to touch us because we win.”


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