Before Soto’s predecessor, Erik Visser, retired in November, he had assembled six recruits. The 42-year-old Soto made it a priority to keep them. Then, he took a glance at the Dons’ 2013 season statistics — three players shared the team lead in goals, with three (the Dons have not had a 10-goal scorer in a season since Conor Chinn in 2009) — and he headed out in pursuit of additional attacking firepower.
Soto, a former UCLA assistant coach, tacked on six more recruits to the original half-dozen. And these were far from last-minute bargain buys. Soto’s coaching philosophy incorporates a possession-oriented attack (goals come through fluid passing and canny movement), so he needed players with a certain technical proficiency. Included among his pickups was K.J. Ahlo, a 5-foot-6 dribbling dervish from Hawaii widely regarded as one of America’s top young talents.
“I tapped into resources, reached out to old friends and we hit the ground running and began picking up talent,” Soto said. “There were guys still available who were ready to commit to other places, but when we spoke to them, they were eager and hungry to come to USF and help this team.”
It all adds to Soto’s vision, which zeroes in upon returning USF to its former glory.
“What sold me at USF was the history,” he said. “USF is part of the conversation of the best programs to ever take part in college soccer. When this job opened up, it was a no-brainer for me.”
There are six national championships in the Hilltop’s soccer locker, the last of which came in 1980. The Dons have not made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament since ‘94 — also the last year USF featured an All-American.
Last season, USF went 7-11-2 and finished fifth in the West Coast Conference at 4-7-1. But the cupboard is far from bare. The 12 newcomers join 14 returning players, seven of whom started last year. That includes 5-9 senior midfielder Miguel Aguilar, a second-team All-WCC selection in ‘13, during which he was one of those players to tally three goals.
Soto is no stranger to success at the collegiate level. During his eight years as an assistant at UCLA (he also worked as a head coach for Los Angeles Galaxy Academy teams), the Bruins never missed the NCAA tournament. They were Pac-12 Conference champions four times. Last season, UCLA finished the regular season as the No. 1 team in the country. Now, the work begins to galvanize USF.
Ten days lie between the first day of fall training and an Aug. 20 scrimmage against Cal in Berkeley. The season opener comes on Aug. 29, at Wisconsin.
“The Cal game will be a chance for us to pair some of the younger guys with the older and give us a sense of who’s ready as we prepare for our first road trip,” Soto said.
“Come Tuesday, when we start training, these kids will be entrenched with how we want things done. They’ll figure out their roles and responsibilities. We don’t have the benefit of a long preseason, so we want to make sure everyone is on the same page.”