Last season, St. Francis High and Crescenta Valley were the most successful boys' soccer programs in the area, with both squads advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division I and IV playoffs, respectively. The Golden Knights and Falcons will look to keep things running smoothly and senior leadership and depth could well be the keys for both.
The Golden Knights have depth in goal, key pieces back in the midfield led by senior Austin Frank and a pair of dangerous strikers up top in seniors Eric Bocanegra and Billy McCreary.
Senior Paul Dean, last season's starter in goal is back, as is junior keeper Luca Coppola, who sat out last season with an injury.
"We're really happy to have two quality goalkeepers," veteran St. Francis Coach Glen Appels said. "That's a great start for our team."
Senior center back Thomas Banks is back to anchor the back line, but figures to be flanked by younger players making their first forays into varsity.
"We have a couple outstanding young guys," Appels said, "so we're trying to find exactly which guys are going to fit in there, but we have some choices, which is nice."
One blow to the Knights' fortunes is the decision of All-CIF forward Mark Verso to forgo his junior season of high school to play with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
As per usual, the Golden Knights will kick off the season by tackling a tough nonleague schedule in order to prepare for the ultra-competitive Mission League, where the team placed second last season. Some of the juicier matchups will include Santa Barbara, St. John Bosco, Santa Monica, CV, and a return to the Nike Invitational in Oceanside.
"We look at everything with an eye on the playoffs, as well," Appels said. "You have to be ready for the Mission League and then the Mission League gets us ready for the playoffs. Challenging ourselves is the way to go, especially with the seniors we have and the leadership they're providing."
In addition to being ranked eighth in the Division IV preseason poll, Crescenta Valley is also widely seen as the favorite to capture its third straight Pacific League championship. With seven starters returning as seniors, including the All-CIF trio of All-Area Player of the Year forward Pavle Atanackovic, forward Alex Berger and midfielder Salar Hajimirsadeghi, it's not hard to see why.
Grant Clark will assume coaching duties for the Falcons this season, replacing Kiel McClung, whom he served under as an assistant coach previously.
"Most of it is run by the seniors," Clark said of the Falcons' motivation to make another run. "The seniors are pretty focused on what they want to get done and they have their goals set for not only winning a league championship, but also making a deep run into the playoffs. Their goal is to win a CIF championship and we feel that we have the talent and the understanding to make that happen."
Aside from the Falcons' dominance at the top, the Pacific League has become increasingly competitive and unpredictable over the last couple of seasons, a fact Clark knows his team would be wise to heed.
"Burroughs always seems to give us a rough time," Clark said. "We're always concerned with Burroughs and I understand Pasadena's going to be up from last year. As much as we would like to walk into league and say this one's ready to go, we understand that we have to get out and play the game and do our part to make sure we come out on top."
Also in the running in the Pacific League are Glendale and Hoover, which finished in third and seventh place, respectively, last season.
Glendale has an experienced, skilled defensive unit returning largely intact, led by seniors Vaho Matousian and Maurico Medina, as well as a solid returning goalkeeper in junior Aris Yeghiazaryan. Aside from that, the Nitros will turn to new blood to keep their current string of playoff appearances going.
"We're hoping we can get into the playoffs again, considering our league always goes up and down," Glendale Coach Tulio Marroquin said. "It's going to be a bit of a challenge because there's a lot of new players I have coming in and some of them are not used to the system we are trying to run. Right now, we're trying to get everyone on the same page ideally and see what we can do."
Despite the team's disappointing finish in last year's league standings, Hoover Coach Kevin Cadenas said the Tornadoes showed some signs toward the end of the campaign that he hopes will be a starting point for the new year.
"The guys are working hard, we look united," Cadenas said. "We actually have some size this year. Our guys look big.
"Our midfield and offense looks pretty strong right now."
Leading the charge for Hoover will be Artin Almary and Ryan Chereque up front, Argian Haghoubian and Carlos Rodriguez in the midfield and utility Luis Lopez.
"He's my wild card," Cadenas said of Lopez, a senior. "He plays everything and he plays it well."
Cadenas said that despite Crescenta Valley's strong grip on the league, there's a shot for anyone to emerge as a contender.
"Every year, every team has a chance to make the playoffs," Cadenas said. "I strongly believe that CV is the team to beat, but the league is so competitive right now that everyone has a chance to be able to win league. For us to have a chance to win it, we have to be focused and have no breakdowns. That's what affected us last year — mental breakdowns."
In the Prep League, Flintridge Prep will begin a new era under Coach Matt Bowden, the third Rebels Coach in as many years.
"I'm excited for the season," Bowden said. "In the short time I've had the team and seen them, I'm pleased with what I've seen. …I'm looking forward to a positive season.
"We want to play in a fast-paced and a passing style, which is how the game should be played really, anyway. So far [the plan] is just to encourage them to move the ball around the field quickly, just support the play with the ball and look to go forward at every opportunity."
One year after the school debuted a girls' program, Glendale Adventist Academy's boys' team will open its inaugural season under co-Coaches Joe Sanchez and Ratan Cantillano. The team, led by junior forward Ed Figueroa, will play in the Liberty League.