UCI searching for punch

The UC Irvine men's soccer program did much better playing its opponents than the percentages last season. So it was that despite a 14-3-3 record, its second Big West Conference regular-season title in three seasons, and a No. 8 national ranking, the Anteaters were denied an at-large berth into the 48-team NCAA Tournament.

An upset loss to Cal State Fullerton in the conference tournament that UCI had won the previous two seasons, its No. 62 RPI ranking, two losses in its last three games, and a lack of a signature win left what Coach George Kuntz said may have been his best team ever out of the postseason.

Innocence, a bit of prestige and a modest streak of two straight postseason appearances were not the only things lost in the 2010 campaign. Close to 85% of the goal production is also gone, though Kuntz believes that his roster is rife with potential firepower.

The most proven of the returners on offense is senior Miguel Ibarra, who led the team with 10 assists last season on his way to first-team all-conference recognition. He shifts from midfield to forward.

Senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein is also a notable returner, back for his fourth season as a starter. He had 11 shutouts last season, when he earned second-team All-Big West laurels. He has 20 shutouts for his career.

"[Fontein] is as fit as I've ever seen him and he is a very focused young man," Kuntz said. "He has prepared himself for the pros, if he should get that opportunity."

Senior Jimmy Turner and junior Everett Pitts were starters on the four-player back line in 2010, but Pitts will be joined there by three new starters as Turner shifts to the midfield.

"[Turner's] leadership is needed more centrally this season," Kuntz said. "He will be a captain for us and he has been wonderful."

Of UCI's 46 goals in 2010, only seven were scored by returners. And no returner scored more than two.

"We have a pretty strong back line and goalkeeper," Kuntz said. "We just don't know exactly where the goals are going to come from."

Decorated forwards Amani Walker and Spencer Thompson combined for 17 goals last season before being selected in the MLS draft, as was defender Corey Attaway, whose five goals were third on the team.

"I think we're going to be much more balanced," Kuntz said. "We're probably going to play a different style than we have the last six years because we aren't starting big targets [at forward]. We're much more mobile than we've been in the past. We've created a system that will utilize interchangeable parts. So if someone is marking one of our players up top, the next minute they may have to find them in the midfield. When you have traditional targets, you can't do that."

Kuntz said those interchangeable offensive threats will include seniors Ibarra, Christian Hernandez (two goals last season) and Syd Tom, as well as sophomores Enrique Cardenas and Chris Santana, and freshmen Juan "Crabby" Gutierrez and Mitchell Alvarez.

"[Cardenas] has really blossomed at forward," Kuntz said of the player who had six shots in nine games and did not score last season. "He's very small, but quick. He scored some really brilliant goals in the spring."

Gutierrez, who is recovering from ACL reconstruction and could be ready to play by the Sept. 28 conference opener against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was an All-American forward at JSerra High.

Alvarez was a second-team All-CIF Southern Section pick at Edison High last season and is joined by Trey Hayes (DeMatha High in Washington D.C.), Victor Calderon, Dan Coates Cameron Iwasa, Bryan Breslin and twin brother Michael Breslin as the other possible contributors from the freshmen class.

Also in the midfield will be sophomore Tarek Morad, who helped Mt. San Antonio win a state community college crown last season, as well as Memo Licona, a sophomore transfer from San Diego State.

"What a gem," Kuntz, entering his 17th season, said of Morad.

The starting back line will include Pitts and likely senior Jonathan Rivas as inside defenders. Sophomore Marco Franco and Calderon, out of San Jacinto High, are the probable starters at the outside back spots, Kuntz said.

Senior Bello Alhassan and sophomore Joel vom Dorp also figure to add to a depth chart that Kuntz expects to shift regularly based on performance in practice.

UCI was picked fourth in the Big West coaches' preseason poll, in which UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton occupied the first three spots, respectively.

UCI opens the season against visiting San Diego on Friday at 7 p.m.

The 'Eaters' only meeting with UCSB this season is Oct. 1 at Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara.

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