It’s been six years since the Dons made an NCAA tournament appearance, seven since they enjoyed a winning season and more than 20 since they fielded an All-American.
This is the task before first-year USF coach Eddie Soto: returning a program to its rightful standing.
After seven seasons as a UCLA assistant, Soto was sold on the quality of education and sterling facilities USF offered. In the wake of Erik Visser’s retirement in November after 13 years as coach and 35 with the program, Soto seized his chance and became the fifth coach in program history.
Chase Hauser, a senior goalkeeper whose 5.89 saves per game led the West Coast Conference last season, was among several Dons who helped form Soto’s interview committee. The players even did extra research, contacting UCLA players they knew for first-hand accounts of Soto.
They found glowing reviews.
“Guys love him,” Hauser said. “He’s a players’ coach, so he really handles them well.”
For these returning Dons, smarting from this extended drought, Soto was a welcome spark.
“They were ready for something different, and they’ve definitely responded,” Soto said. “The No. 1 objective was to create an environment that’s competitive, learning and fun — that’s basically my philosophy. I really wanted them to recommit themselves to the program.”
The returnees responded. This summer, senior midfielder Danny Kirkland joined the Earthquakes’ development team and classmate Miguel Aguilar latched on with the Portland Timbers.
“It really helped me a lot,” said Aguilar, a second-team All-WCC pick in 2013. “I stayed fit and learned from some really good players. It’s something I want to pass on to my teammates.”
That includes a group of 12 talented incoming players already making an impact. Sophomore Davi Ramos, a transfer from North Carolina State, produced a goal during a recent exhibition with seventh-ranked Cal, where USF came away 2-1 victors.
The Dons are staying steady — it was just a scrimmage — but the cohesiveness Soto seeks is taking hold. And after struggling to score goals last season, scoring twice against the Bears breeds confidence. Said Aguilar: “[Soto] always talks about being a unit. It’s a lot stronger than simply having good individual players. That’s something I’ve always agreed with.”
That begins with defense, which Soto believes will be USF’s strongest asset. Freshman Manny Padilla, who also made an impact against Cal, joins a group led by junior Joshua Smith, an honorable mention All-WCC pick.
The season officially kicks off on Friday at Wisconsin, followed by games at Illinois-Chicago (Sunday) and Soto’s alma mater Cal State Fullerton (Sept. 5). The Dons won’t play their first home game until Sept. 12.
Which is how Soto wants it. “I’m sure there’s going to be a really good crowd [at Wisconsin],” said Soto. “You want to throw these kids into the fire and see who can do it.”
For Aguilar, it’s the chance to officially unveil a revitalized unit.
“As long as we work for each other and play hard, I don’t think there’s a team we can’t find a way to beat,” Aguilar said. “[The seniors] want to leave on a good note. We want to win the WCC this season.”
USF vs. Wisconsin
WHEN: Friday, 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Climon Soccer Complex, Madison, Wis.