When asked about his expectations for the upcoming year, Cal Poly men’s soccer head coach Steve Sampson responded passionately.
“Everyone is saying this is a rebuilding year,” Sampson said. “Well, to heck with that.”
Last season the Mustangs came in eighth in preseason polling. They exceeded external expectations by finishing third in the conference and were close to reaching the semifinals in the Big West tournament.
Despite these external expectations this season, the team’s expectations of themselves remain high.
“That’s okay, let them sleep on us,” said sophomore striker Drew Patterson, who finished their opening exhibition match against Fresno Pacific with a hat trick. “With the kind of environment we’ve been creating at practice, this team is capable of great things.
“Anything less than a Big West championship would be a disappointment,” Patterson added.
Mustang News interviewed Coach Sampson just days before the conference announced their preseason polls on Aug. 19.
“If they want to keep voting us on the bottom half of the conference, so be it,” Sampson said.
The preseason polls were announced via video on the Big West website. Each school’s logo flashed with a number indicating its ranking. The number six flashed next to Cal Poly, in the bottom half as Sampson predicted.
Part of the reason why they might have polled so lowly is the lack of upperclassmen. The team had 15 upperclassmen last year. That number dropped to six total upperclassmen this season.
It’s not only that there was a drop in numbers — but it was also the quality of their seniors. On the offensive side, Emmanuel Perez and Jacob Glass led the Mustangs in shots on target with 26 and 15 last season, respectively, and each of them are no longer with the team.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Mustangs lost a “very good goalkeeper” in Carlos Arce-Hurtado, along with numerous outstanding defenders, according to Sampson.
This season, the team has 17 new players on the roster, three being upper-class transfers while 14 are freshmen.
In theory, with that drop-off in numbers and talent, there might be an assumption the team is in a rebuilding year, but the team doesn’t believe that’s the case.
One of the key players to fill that offensive void is Drew Patterson, who finished third in shots on target last year and was voted to the Big West preseason team. Patterson said he’s ready to fill the vacancy in the scoring department left by Perez and Glass.
“I always believe in myself,” Patterson said. “We graduated a lot of players last year and someone needs to step up and fill the role as someone who the team looks to score goals.”
Patterson had a big summer in terms of gaining experience. He played in the USL League Two, a North American semi-professional developmental league with some of the top players around the country. He also had a tryout with Boston FC of the MLS.
All of that for Patterson accumulated in helping him “build confidence coming into the year.”
For Salari, Patterson mentioned that they had developed good chemistry together.
“Me and [Salari] have a great connection,” Patterson said. “Every time he gets the ball I don’t even hesitate to make a run in behind because I know if it’s on he’ll find me.”
Kleinhammes, on the other hand, functions more as the glue to the front lines with his steady play.
“[Kleinhammes] gives a solid, consistent effort on the field,” Sampson said.
Sophomore Connor Leber is another intriguing player for the Mustangs. He’s listed as a defender, but will often make his way up onto the offensive side of the field for throw-ins and corner kicks. Sampson noted his great speed and stamina, which allows him to impact both sides of the pitch.
There are no worries about the Mustangs’ ability to score goals. However, the area where the Mustangs must shore up is on the defensive end.
The team lost many of their starting defenders, which has led to Sampson shifting sophomore captain Nate Colley from the midfield to the backline. Sampson said that he moved Colley to the backline because he can utilize his communication and feel for the game to set the lines for the defense.
Colley ran the captain’s camp before the season, a sign of the leadership that he will bring to the team this year.
However, it’s important to find the right fit around Colley to give proper organization on defense. Sophomore Sebastien Maza has gotten time in the backline next to Colley after not playing much last season. Sampson also mentioned junior transfer Erik Cabrera-Trujillo, sophomore Logan Thralls and redshirt freshmen Oscar Baudey as players who could step in as backs.
Offensive and defensive tactics aside, the Mustangs have a strong foundation that bodes well for the program this season and looking into the future. Sampson credits the seniors from last season for that culture-building.
“We’re not top-heavy in terms of seniors compared to last year, but those seniors actually truly helped bring along younger guys returning this year to play a brand of soccer that allows us to be competitive with the best teams in the country.”
Patterson concurred, adding that “the way [last year’s seniors] approached every day, practice and lifts” created a positive environment they are trying to replicate this year.
Sampson is confident in the team’s outlook not only this season but moving forward as well. The team doesn’t have many players graduating after the year, so many of the players will return after another year of play.
“Next year, we are only going to bring in four or five recruits,” Sampson said. “We should have a lot of experienced players and a very competitive team for the following years.”
On the topic of this season, Sampson said he hasn’t “been this excited for a team ever since I got here.”
“This year I see talent, understanding and good chemistry,” Sampson said.
Watch a Mustang News recap of the men’s soccer home opener here.