Young Dons eager to test their mettle

It was business as usual during practice at Negoesco Stadium earlier this week as a relaxed yet focused USF men’s soccer team smiled and sweated through a variety of drills.

But the pressure will surely rise beginning today for the Dons as a team nearly as green as the Field Turf it plays on will host two of the nation’s top programs. USF (4-1) has gotten off to a fast start with a youthful 32-man roster that features 17 freshmen and will be tested by No. 5 UCLA (2-2-1) tonight at 7 and before playing New Mexico (3-3) Saturday at 7 p.m.

“This week will be a big challenge for us,” said USF coach Erik Visser, whose team was unranked prior to the season but is now No. 12 in the Soccer America poll.

“I’ve been surprised and really pleased with how well the guys have played so far, especially considering we’re so young. They’ve forged their new identity quite rapidly.”

Creating a new persona became imperative when team leader and national player of the year candidate Rob Valentino had knee surgery prior to the start of the season. The senior defender had been an anchor on each of the Dons’ three consecutive NCAA Tournament teams and was the foundation of a back line that held opponents to a West Coast Conference-low 0.87 goals per game in 2006.

“Rob’s an incredible player and leader and one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” USF senior midfielder and co-captain Brandon McDonald said. “But you can’t dwell on losing a guy like that and we had to move on instantly. [That adversity] brought us together really quickly and everyone knew they had to step up.”

McDonald, senior defender Daniel DeGeer and senior fullback-co-captain Chris Rodd have emerged as the stabilizing forces on this year’s team, which has shown an ability to win close games despite its youth. All five of USF’s games have been decided by one goal and USF has won the last four — including back-to-back victories over Cal and Stanford a week ago. Redshirt sophomore Conor Chinn has been the Dons’ main scoring threat, netting four goals and winning last week’s WCC Player of the Week award.

The freshmen have also played a big role in the wins, as Victor Cortez has taken over for Valentino and done well at fullback, Jeff Penna came off the bench to score two goals in a win over Alabama A&M and Bryan Burke and Jonathan McMullen have impressed with their speed and on-ball skill.

That quartet was not on the field in 2006, but it has quickly learned the recent history between the Dons and this week’s opponents. USF fell to UCLA in Los Angeles 2-0 last year and then lost a heartbreaking 1-0 decision to New Mexico in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, with the only goal trickling across the line with just 18 seconds remaining in regulation.

“That was one of those games you’re not sure is going to ever leave you,” Visser said of the New Mexico loss. “But we’re excited for these games and have a chance to erase some of those bad memories.”

USF’s big weekend

» TODAY: No. 12 USF (4-1) vs.No. 5 UCLA (2-2-1), 7 p.m.

» SATURDAY: USF vs. New Mexico (3-3), 7 p.m.

» WHERE: Negoesco Stadium (Parker Avenue at Turk Street)

» TICKETS: (415) 422-2873

melliser@examiner.com

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