Over the past two seasons, UC Davis men’s soccer has established itself both as a legitimate Division I program and as a national title threat. The 2009 version of the squad, however, hasn’t had as much luck as in past years to start its season.
With a 26-man roster consisting of a mere nine upperclassman, a learning curve is to be expected but after two straight years of NCAA tournament appearances, a 2-5 record to start the season is difficult to get used to.
“As a coach I’m not accustomed to this,” coach Dwayne Shaffer said. “I don’t like losing. My goal is to make the Big West tournament, to get into the NCAA tournament and to win a national championship.”
The 2009 campaign got off to a bit of a rough start with a 4-1 loss to San Jose State in Spartan Stadium.
Redshirt freshman striker John Joslin got the Aggies on the board first but the Spartans responded with four straight goals to win the match going away.
Next, UC Davis took a Labor Day trip to Sin City for the UNLV Nike Invitational. The Aggies bounced back from the loss to San Jose State at the expense of Robert Morris and Central Arkansas, beating them 3-0 and 3-1 respectively.
Senior forward Chris Leer had two assists on the weekend and co-captain Paul Marcoux found the back of the Central Arkansas net twice.
“We were clearly the better team in both games,” Shaffer said. “It was particularly nice because our returning players really stepped up and played well.”
Following the big weekend in Las Vegas, UC Davis faced two Pacific-10 opponents in UCLA and Washington. The Aggies were mauled 4-1 by the Bruins in Westwood on Thursday before returning home on Sunday to open up play at Aggie Soccer Stadium against the Huskies.
UC Davis dominated Washington in the first half, controlling the ball and keeping on the Husky end of the pitch. The Aggies went into halftime up 1-0 on a Julian Godinez goal in the 26th minute.
The Aggies’ aggressive play let up in the second half and Washington eventually took advantage, drawing even at 1-1 in the 79th minute.
In the second overtime period, the Huskies scored the golden goal to steal the game away from the Aggies. The loss was the first at home for UC Davis since the 2007 season.
“UCLA wasn’t 4-0 better than us, San Jose State wasn’t 4-1 better than us and I didn’t think that Washington necessarily was better than us, but they earned the win,” Shaffer said.
Last weekend, the Aggies made their second trip to the dessert, this time for the Nike/TLC Plumbing and Utilities Invitational in Albuquerque, N.M.
That trip unfortunately did not yield two victories, but rather two more hard losses.
On Friday, the Aggies again entered halftime up 1-0 over host New Mexico thanks to a Marcoux header in the 39th minute.
The Lobos came out strong in the second half, finding the back of the Aggie net twice, the deciding goal coming in the 71st minute on a penalty kick.
“Our team has so much talent,” freshman defender Dan Reese said. “When we get ahead we forget to hold them and choke them.”
UC Davis looked to rebound on Sunday against Binghamton. The Aggies fired nine shots forcing the Bearcats keeper to make four saves but were unable to put the ball between the posts.
The Bearcats, however, found the Aggie net in the 26th minute, a goal which proved to be enough as UC Davis fell to Binghamton 1-0.
Marcoux and sophomore defender Lance Patterson were both named to the All-Tournament team. The Aggies slid to 2-5 on the year but Shaffer doesn’t doubt his team’s drive.
“I don’t question the desire and the fight they have,” Shaffer said. “We’re just an inexperienced team.”
As the fall begins, UC Davis will look to turn things around. Tomorrow’s match-up in Moraga against St. Mary’s and Sunday’s La Copa de Causeway at Aggie Soccer Stadium represent the Aggies’ last two opportunities to gain some experience before Big West Conference play begins.
“We have so many new players and when you just train through preseason you don’t get to see the kids in a game situation in the competitive environment,” Shaffer said. “It’s taken the coaching staff a while to realize how we need to play.”
As the team continues to grow, both individually as a unit, it will continue to depend on its small contingent of veteran leadership.
“I’ve been through the last couple seasons with our team in the tournament,” Marcoux said, “so I think our coach is looking for me to guide the guys and show them where to go. It’s not necessarily telling them what to do all the time, but more just coaching them out on the field.”
The Aggies will need that extra leadership on the field as this year’s squad doesn’t lack talent so much as they lack experience.
“We’re just as big, just as fast and just as talented as all the other teams,” said Reese, “but when it comes to the games is when [the inexperience] really shows.”
So far this season that talent has not converted to wins on the field.
“So much of soccer is about the mentality,” Shaffer said. “Learning how to win is a phrase in our program.”
Once UC Davis does learn how to win, it will continue to be a force to be reckoned in D-I college soccer.
JOHN S HELLER can be reached at email@example.com.