Defense keys USF success

They have back-to-back West Coast Conference championships. They have four shutout wins and a tie so far this season against a challenging schedule of nationally ranked, opponents. They have one of the best goalkeepers in college soccer. And with a weekend road trip south approaching, the USF men’s soccer team — ranked eighth by Soccer America — has its eyes set on another WCC title and NCAA Tournament appearance.

“This is a senior, veteran ballclub that’s tasted success and knows how to win,” coach Erik Visser said Wednesday. USF’s two-game road trip to Los Angeles will pit the Dons (4-0-1) against Cal State Northridge and perennial powerhouse and 16th-ranked UCLA in two more tough nonconference matches.

“We’re confident that after this weekend, this team will be tested enough to compete at conference,” Visser said of the Dons’ strong showing at the Penn State Classic, where they went 1-0-1. “We have what might be the strongest pre-conference schedule [in the WCC].”

The Dons have victories over Cal, Stanford, San Jose State, Penn State and a 1-1 tie against Ohio State, in which senior goal keeper Geremy Uhl allowed his first goal in 437 minutes of play.

Uhl has four shutouts this season and 22 career conference whitewashes, two shy of Portland keeper Casey Keller’s record, which will likely fall early this season. His 0.77 overall and 0.85 goals-against average in 2005 led the WCC for the second consecutive year, though it wasn’t as low as his 0.38 GAA in 2004.

Visser called Uhl the backbone of his defense. But 2005 WCC Defender of the Year Rob Valentino, Penn State Classic MVP Kevin Long and senior midfielder Matt Languis, along with the entire USF defense, contribute to those shut out numbers.

USF has traditionally been a defensive-minded team and has lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by one goal the last two years. But a well-rounded offense and execution by veteran players has put the points on the board so far to give the Dons the wins that will get them back to the playoffs.

Associated head coach Josh McKay said simply: “We need to finish goal-scoring opportunities.”

USF has eight goals on 55 shots for a .145 shooting percentage and six leading scorers. Making the math confusing is that two of the eight goals were own-goals scored by opposing defenses. Aaron Chandler, Adam Bergman, Languis, Long, Conor Chinn and Ardalan Attar each have goals for the Dons, illustrating the reason for Visser and McKay’s reluctance to single out offensive leaders from their diverse roster of scorers. On paper, Chandler is the current offensive leader with one goal and two assists.

St. Mary’s (2-2-2) will test whether success in nonconference play translates when it hosts the Dons in the WCC opener Sept. 22. For now USF is focused on the task at hand.

“This schedule and the way we’re playing are an extreme confidence boost, but we have to stay level headed,” Uhl said. “UCLA will be a great challenge.”

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