In its final five matches of the 2011 campaign, the Cal Poly men’s soccer team struggled going 0-4-1 while scoring only one goal during the stretch. The streak punctuated a taxing season for a program that has established itself as a perennial contender for the Big West title in the past half-decade.
But after posting a 6-9-3 overall record in 2011, which included a 3-6-1 mark in conference play and an absence from the Big West Tournament for the first time in three years, the Mustangs decided it was time for a culture change in 2012.
“We want to make Cal Poly remember that (2012) was the year that we picked ourselves back up,” junior forward Benny Estes said.
The Mustangs will debut a much younger, more refined squad along with an attacking formation when they hit the pitch for regular season play in late August.
The team will unveil a new 1-4-3-3 scheme to spur the offense by establishing a finishing touch in front of goal and capitalizing on scoring opportunities provided by the new system. Cal Poly notched 15 goals in 18 total matches in 2011, the lowest offensive figure in the Big West despite outshooting many of its opponents.
“As everyone knows last year, we didn’t produce any goals, so this spring that was a huge focus,” Estes said. “We’re scoring goals this spring, and we’re out possessing teams about 70 to 30, and we’re all very excited and happy to play under this new system.”
The new system was born out of head coach Paul Holocher’s recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, during which he observed the playing style of arguably the best club team in the world: FC Barcelona. Cal Poly’s new formation will emulate the attacking style of some of Europe’s most successful teams such as Barcelona and AFC Ajax of Amsterdam.
“It was really a life-changing experience for me,” Holocher said. “I had been admiring (FC Barcelona’s) play the last five years in their historic run, and it was neat to see how they actually developed that beautiful style of play.”
A silver lining for the Mustangs in 2011 was the presence of a veteran back line that set program records for fewest goals conceded (17) and fewest goals allowed per game (0.94). But with three of the four defenders that anchored the Mustang defense graduating, Cal Poly will rely on a possession-minded offensive attack to take the pressure of freshman goalkeeper Chase Hauser.
After graduating seven players, the Mustangs will look to the youth to provide a spark headed into next season. Hauser will overtake the starting goalkeeper’s role, a position he’ll gladly accept following a solid outing in his lone start last season. He led the Mustangs to a 1-0 upset of then-No. 7-ranked UC Irvine after facing eight shots on frame.
Junior center back Connor Drechsler will be the lone returner from the back line, while several forwards from last year’s squad comeback including junior Dakota Collins, and sophomores Ian Clark and Mackenzie Pridham.
“My goal for next season is to produce goals and assists, and to do better than last season,” Clark said. “I think that’s entirely possible the way we’ve been playing.”
Estes will make the transition from forward joining 5-foot-6 junior dynamo Chris Gaschen in the midfield.
Cal Poly will also introduce eight freshman recruits along with four transfers that are expected to join the squad in 2012. Several have international experience and will make an immediate impact on the pitch, Holocher said.
“I think we did a good job of identifying exactly what we needed,” he said.
The Mustangs will contest another stacked non-conference schedule before conference play begins in September. The season will start with several notable away games at Washington and Seattle University before Cal Poly comes home for a lengthy homestand, which features matchups against Harvard and UCLA during Week of Welcome.
On top of a strong non-conference schedule, the Mustangs will host UC Santa Barbara in another installment of the Blue-Green Rivalry. Last year’s match drew a sell-out crowd of 11,075 to witness Cal Poly win in come-from-behind fashion off an 89th-minute penalty kick winner by Patrick Sigler.
However, in their regular season finale in Santa Barbara, the Mustangs were outdueled in the second leg of the home-and-home series 2-0, a loss that left a sour taste for the returning Cal Poly players. They’ll look to avenge that loss next season at Harder Stadium.
“For all the fans that come out to the away UCSB game, I want to win at their home,” Estes said. “I just want to eat their tortillas off the field.”