Conference USA Off To A Strong Start – New Mexico, Tulsa, UAB, Charlotte all enter the weekend ranked in the College Soccer News Top 30 poll.
New Mexico – It is all about team play at New Mexico under Jeremy Fishbein. Put that on the top of the list of reasons why the Lobos have consistently been successful under Fishbein. Fishbein and his staff recruit talented players that also value and understand the team concept.
Any discussion of New Mexico also has to include kudos for the fan base which is among the best in college soccer and adds to the excitement of an evening spent at the UNM Soccer Complex. The energy from the fans translates to the field. Look for a good crowd to be on hand when the Lobos host Santa Clara on Friday and a very good Cal State Northridge team on Sunday.
Midfielder Michael Calderon is the guy who is at the center of and the key to the New Mexico offense. Calderon is a prime timer but the Lobos and Calderon are at their best when Calderon does not try to force things but instead plays simple and reacts to what is available. Junior forward James Rogers gives the Lobos a talented finisher up top with a work ethic that mirrors that of the best Lobo strikers. The ability of the Lobo linkmen to get the ball to Rogers' feet in the attacking third is a critical success factor for the New Mexico offense.
Freshman Niko Hansen has added an additional dimension to the Lobo attack and has helped to plug the void that exists due to the graduation of Devon Sandoval (15g, 7a) and Blake Smith (3g, 13a). Look for sophomore midfielder Ben McKendry to play a significant role in the Lobo attack as the season progresses. There are questions regarding the backline but none regarding the play of redshirt senior center back Kyle Venter who is among the best in the country at his position. The X-Factor for the Lobos on the defensive side of the ball may be senior goalkeeper Michael Lisch who must make the key saves while his backline gels.
Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane opened the season with a 2-0 loss to Creighton but then rebounded to win their next three straight. Tulsa played Creighton much closer than the score indicates. Their signature win to date is a 2-0 win over a very good SIU Edwardsville team. This looks to be a vintage Tom McIntosh team with a high octane offense that can score in multiples when they are on track. Tulsa is a possession oriented team with the ability to knock the ball around very effectively. They move off the ball well and do a good job of finding and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. However to win against the best and to play to the standard that McIntosh expects they need to reduce the lapses in play that they have displayed at times in the early going.
Senior midfielder Omar Mata is the team quarterback and the guy who makes good things happen for Tulsa. Forward Cristian Mata, the 2012 CUSA Freshman of the Year, is the go-to guy up top with a work rate on both sides of the ball that perhaps only his brother Omar can match. Forwards C. Mata, Kyle Cumings, and Bryce Follensbee have all scored twice so far along with defender Tony Rocha. The goalkeeping position was a big question mark heading into the 2013 season due to the graduation of Mark Pais. Senior Cody Mumma has assumed the starting role and has played well between the pipes to date.
UAB – Mike Getman's Blazers are the highest in the rankings that they have been since the 2003 season when they began the year with a 6-0-2 mark. This is a team that has been lighting up the back of the net. They enter the weekend with a 3-0-0 record that includes big wins over VCU and Indiana.
The Blazers host old foe Charlotte, the team that has knocked them out of the NCAA Tourney for the past two seasons, on Friday night at West Campus Field. Charlotte is a very athletic side and should match up well with the Blazers. Getman stated, "It's a big rivalry, no question."
The Blazers also host a good ETSU team on Sunday in the Soccer for a Cure Classic. ETSU has only netted one goal in three matches to date but on the other hand they have allowed only one goal.
A healthy, the key word is healthy, junior forward Diego Navarrete leads the UAB offense with four goals and an assist. Getman stated, "Diego's been a tremendous player of us for the past two years, but he's been hurt the whole time."
The Blazers have been outstanding at finishing the scoring opportunities that have come their way. They are scoring at a rate of 3.67 goals per game, which is tied with Dayton for the top-spot in that category in Division I men's soccer. Sophomore forward Freddy Ruiz has contributed a total of three goals to date while midfielder redshirt Patrick Huang and freshman forward Rami Dajani have added two each. UAB has scored eleven times to date while only allowing two goals. Redshirt junior Alex Clay has contributed three assists. Senior Raphael Ville gives the Blazers a talented and composed presence in goal.
The Blazers have a ton of momentum and a good crowd should be on hand including an energized "Green Army" which should keep UAB fired up for the matchups with Charlotte and ETSU. The big question at UAB is whether they can continue to play with the focus and energy that has served them so well to date. In the past at times they have started strong then fizzled. This weekend should provide a little insight into that.
Charlotte – The 49ers have road wins over Denver and Coastal Carolina. In between those wins they were upset at home 1-0 by UNC Greensboro even though they had a 15-4 advantage in shots and dominated play. Charlotte will take to the road this weekend to face UAB on Friday and then Memphis on Sunday in the UAB Soccer For A Cure Classic in Birmingham. The win over Coastal Carolina bodes well for the 49ers against a UAB team that like Coastal Carolina is very attack oriented.
This is a strong, physical, and well conditioned Charlotte team. Junior forward Giuseppe Gentile has netted three of the four goals that Charlotte has scored to date. Senior Aidan Kirkbride and redshirt senior Tyler Gibson set the pace for a very active 49er midfield. Charlotte is very effective at changing the point of attack, playing the ball out wide, and then crossing it back into the middle for Gentile and others to finish.
The Charlotte backline of seniors Thomas Allen and Anthony Perez, sophomore Biko Bradnock-Brennan, and redshirt freshman Luke Waechter along with redshirt senior goalkeeper Klay Davis are very solid but they will likely have to play their best soccer of the year to contain what to date has been a very potent UAB attack.