It’s been three years since Men’s Soccer head coach Steve Sampson has seen a brand of soccer at a high level within his own squad — and the results are paying dividends. Cal Poly has opened their first five matches of 2019 with a winning record of 3-2. Last year, the Mustangs had won just one of their first five matches into the non-conference schedule.
With last season bringing just five wins out of a total 16 matches, and over half of the team’s losses falling within a one-goal margin, Sampson has retooled his squad with players who are no strangers to college soccer.
“We worked very hard in the off season to bring in some [players] that have very good experience, not only for their playing experience, but also for the maturity,” Sampson said.
Among the new players are graduate transfers Robert Knights (UCLA), Spencer Held (California) and Colin Hyatt (Stanford). Junior college transfers Jackson Brady, Josh Graham and Creed McKinnon also joined the squad. All three junior college players carry international experience, while the three graduate transfers bring maturity from the highest level of NCAA soccer. The Mustangs also added depth to their roster with the addition of two freshmen from the United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA), Logan Thralls and Noah Boettiger.
Sampson attributed part of last season’s struggles to the high amount of one-goal defeats the program faced. Of the Mustangs’ nine defeats in 2018, five stemmed from a one-goal margin.
“It’s a matter of being more organized and more disciplined on the field, and it’s a matter of having more leadership and maturity on the field,” Sampson said. “And I think we have that now this year.”
Sampson said a consistent challenge for him at Cal Poly has been finding enough talent to have composure in the attacking third of the field. However, the mix of returning and incoming players has created a faster, much more mobile and unpredictable style of play, according to the coach.
And while 2019 has shifted the Mustang program for the better, the team has had to adjust to key losses as well. Defender Brecc Evans started every game for the Mustangs as a freshman in 2018 before signing a professional contract with North Texas FC in January 2019. Senior goalkeeper Simon Boehme, who holds multiple Cal Poly goalkeeping records, graduated in Spring 2019.
Sampson praised Boehme for keeping the Mustangs in many games last season with his outstanding play, but he also recognized the lack of playing time Boehme caused for the backup goalkeepers. As a result, the team is still looking for a starting goalkeeper in sophomore Carlos Arce-Hurtado or junior Jason Hernandez.
“We’re going to keep alternating them until one really rises to the occasion,” Sampson said. “And we’ve seen them both play exceptionally well.”
Arce-Hurtado added to his case with a clean sheet and two saves in a 3-0 victory over Westmont on Sept. 19. He also benefited from a defense that allowed one shot attempt over the first 37 minutes.
With their 3-0 shutout over Westmont, the Mustangs are currently on a three-game winning streak against non-conference opponents. Cal Poly had three goals in each of their three wins, with junior midfielder Emmanuel Perez leading the offensive output.
In his pivotal role during this streak, Perez scored in all three games and slotted in five goals during that span. He also capped off victories against Gonzaga and Westmont with back-to-back braces. His five goals as of Sept. 19 puts him close to last year’s leading goalscorer Sean Goode, who totaled seven goals across the season.
Speaking the day before Cal Poly’s shutout over Westmont, Sampson noted outstanding attitudes among his squad. He attributed the team’s attitude to them knowing “this is just part of the process of us getting better.”
“Whether it’s a training session or it’s a game, let’s find ways of getting better each and every day,” Sampson said. “And they are.”
The Mustangs will look to keep their momentum as the team heads into its final batch of non-conference matches. Cal Poly’s final non-conference match takes place Oct. 5 at Blue-Green-rival UC Santa Barbara. The Mustangs finished their 2018 season at Harder Stadium with a 2-0 loss.
Perez said the team remains focused on creating a good attitude and environment for the season, including pre-and-post-workout basics like stretching and foam rolling, along with off-the-pitch efforts such as diet maintenance.
“You know, the attitude in practice is so much more intense, and it’s like everyone’s making each other better,” Perez said. “It’s a really good environment to be in.”
A combined effort both on-and-off the pitch has the Mustangs gunning for their most coveted goal of the season: A Big West Conference championship and the NCAA Tournament berth that comes along with it.
“Our goal is definitely to win the Big West,” Perez said. “There’s not a doubt it’s going to be tough, but we have the people to do it.”