PREVIEW: SF State men's soccer kicks off new season

SF State soccer players look onto the soccer field at Cox Stadium in San Francisco Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. The Gators finished the 2011 season with a 5-11-2 record. Photo by Godofredo Vasquez.

When you see the SF State men’s soccer team this year, you’ll notice a few things. They’re bigger. They’re agile. They’re athletic.

Part of that is due to the fact that the 2012 Gators are welcoming nine new players this season. Among them are four freshmen, all of whom are 5 feet 10 inches or taller.

The University’s men’s soccer team has 17 players coming back, nine of them seniors, and head coach Joe Hunter knows the team’s success relies heavily on their experience and their ability to lead.

“If I have to think of one of the things that’s going to be very important to our success is that these guys have to be able to mentor and lead and be responsible,” Hunter said. “They know what they’re gonna be going through, they’ve seen it.”

Having more than half the team in the offseason definitely helped build the Gators’ chemistry.

“Chemistry-wise we worked a lot on that over the spring. We had a couple of tough matches (scrimmages) and that helped us a lot with our chemistry,” senior forward Edgar Villagrana said.

With the team dynamics figured out, the Gators can try to address their biggest challenge from 2011 — scoring goals. SF State found the back of the net only 14 times last year, while opponents scored a total of 25 times.

The Gators attempted more shots than rivals, but only 31 percent of those were on target. In 2012 they need to be more accurate and better at finishing. Simply put, midfielders and forwards have to be able to convert those scoring opportunities, turning those missed shots into goals

“Our biggest deficiency last year was that we didn’t score a lot of goals, and that’s the toughest thing to do,” Hunter said. “I think we will score a few more goals, which will be nice.”

Sophomore midfielder Robert Gilbert agreed with Hunter and sounded confident about the Gators’ ability to finish in front of goal this year.

“We have a lot more guys that can score this year, I think. A lot of the new guys — Sam Merritt is one of them —  we just need to put goals away,” Gilbert said.

Hunter also knows being sound defensively will be vital for a successful season.

“The other thing is you’re gonna win games by being defensively tough, and that’s been the biggest thing we’ve been working on,” he said. “Just shape, defensive shape, good decisions and communicating with each other.”

Hunter spoke highly of his freshman class. He described goalkeeper Guillermo Castro as experienced due to the time he spent playing with the El Salvador U-17 national team.

Freshman Jared Magaoay, who stands at 6 feet tall, was described by Hunter as a “man-child,” due to his physicality and ability to play many positions. The head coach also had high praises whenever he spoke about freshmen midfielder Sam Merritt.

“I think this kid Sam Merritt, as a freshmen, is one that could vie for a freshmen of the year (award),” said Hunter. “He’s a very, very good player.”

Merritt is hopeful to end the season as a starter for the Gators.

“I like the way they play and it fits my style of play, too. Like possession and keeping the ball, and just waiting for the game to open up,” Merritt said. “Hopefully I’m starting by the end of the season, that’d be nice, or at least getting a lot of playing time.”

The Gators will need seniors like defenders Jose Vitela and Sasha Chalak, midfielder Jose Monje, and Villagrana to play their best soccer. Coach Hunter also expects sophomores to make significant progress this year.

Hayden Roberts, Juan Sanchez, Kevin Johnson and Gilbert all “need to take a big step and just continue to get better, because they’re key for us as well,” Hunter said.

The Gators started the 2012 season with a 3-2 loss against Notre Dame de Namur University Monday afternoon. SF State will play Academy of Art University this Wednesday night at Kezar Stadium and won’t play at home until Sept. 16.

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