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Team embraces title culture

This team has one – and only one – goal on its mind

Sometime after that bitter late autumn day in Connecticut, sometime during the spring when there are few games but a lot of sweat, the 2013 University of New Mexico men’s soccer team was born.

The season formally begins with the first day of practice Monday. But this latest band of Lobos have been forming a new bond in the aftermath of last year’s Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament double-overtime loss at Connecticut.

“That game leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” admits senior Lobo defender Kyle Venter, a preseason All-American. “You don’t want to dwell on it. You want to use it as motivation. I think everybody’s pretty motivated to go out there the first game in preseason and put that to rest and move on to this season, be focused on what’s ahead of us.”

What’s ahead is a dangerous schedule. After three exhibitions, UNM opens at home Aug. 30 against Big East contender Villanova. Then the Lobos visit top-25 program Virginia Commonwealth and Georgetown, last year’s NCAA runner-up.

Senior midfielder Michael Kafari is not fazed.

“I think we’re the hardest-working team in the country,” says Kafari, adding that this year’s goal is to win a national championship. “I don’t think any team works harder, any team deserves it more than we do.”

Echoes senior midfielder Michael Calderon: “Our expectations are to win Conference USA, win a national championship.”

This will be UNM’s first venture into Conference USA, a prestigious soccer league that earned four NCAA Tournament bids last season.

“It’s exciting,” UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein says of the schedule. “That’s who our guys want to play. They want to play against the best. … That’s how you become battle-tested, how you prepare for the postseason. That’s where you get to see where you are as a team.”

Venter says he is looking forward to the “new experiences and how we’re going to handle it. Conference USA, a lot of new travel, new teams. I’m really eager to see how this team handles it.”

Whatever comes their way, the Lobos will have to handle it without graduated goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez, forward Devon Sandoval and forward-midfielder Blake Smith, the latter two are now in the MLS.

UNM soccer head coach Jeremy Fishbein, center, says this year’s squad has “a lot of firepower,” despite losing three key players to graduation after last season. (Journal File)

UNM soccer head coach Jeremy Fishbein, center, says this year’s squad has “a lot of firepower,” despite losing three key players to graduation after last season. (Journal File)

“Replace is a funny term,” Fishbein says. “I mean, you’re never going to replace them man for man with the same qualities. I think we’ll bring in exciting players who have other attributes, and it’s a matter of how we adapt as a team. It’s still unclear how everyone is going to fit in, what role they’re going to play. But we’ve got a lot of firepower.”

“We don’t have a big forward like Devon Sandoval, or a Blake Smith,” Kafari says. “But we have other players who bring different qualities to the game. We can definitely change a game like those two did last season.”

Junior forward-midfielder James Rogers recorded eight goals and five assists in 18 games last season, while Calderon and sophomore midfielder Ben McKendry each had 16 points in 2012.

Junior goalkeeper Patrick Poblete, who had 21 saves in eight games last year, returns. But he will be challenged by Michael Lisch, a senior transfer from Wake Forest.

“That’s going to be a battle,” Fishbein says. “Patrick Poblete had some big games last year, some great wins. Michael Lisch came in in January. I think those two will really battle for the position initially.”

UNM also brought in freshmen ‘keepers Jimmy Schneebeck (Albuquerque High) and Kevin Armstrong (a transfer from West Virginia).

Fishbein says his defenders are versatile – some who are attackers and others who can lock down opponents.

The coaching staff will be challenged to sift through the talent and find the right combination for each game.

“That’s always a challenge when you have a team with depth,” Fishbein says. “I think it’ll be game to game. When guys find their form, when they’re scoring goals, they’re going to stay on the field. It’s going to be competitive at practice.”

Last year is gone. Back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 don’t matter now.

“I think we’ll be even better than last year,” Calderon says. “I feel we have a stronger mentality this year. … Last year, we didn’t want to lose in the Sweet 16. This year, I feel like the coaches have been telling us we have to go farther. The mentality is to think of a national championship.”