If the old adage is true that defense wins championships, the 2016 incarnation of the UC San Diego men’s soccer team is in great shape. The 11-1-2 Tritons are leading the nation in defense with a microscopic 0.27 goals against average, helping them jump nine spots to No. 12 in this week’s NSCAA Coaches Poll.
Head coach Jon Pascale has long been known as a master of the defense-first philosophy. Under his tutelage, the Tritons reeled off winning season after winning season, often finding themselves either near or at the top of the goals-against leaderboard. Last year was a “down” year for the Tritons, finishing 6-6-6 — Pascale’s first non-winning season of the decade. A lot has changed since last fall, as this team is heavy in veteran leadership.
“We didn’t lose a whole lot this year,” Pascale said. “I think that extra year of experience for the players pays huge dividends. You look at last year, and it was a little disappointing record wise. But I think it speaks volumes about our conference. We’re doing great and are off to a great start, but we know that in this conference, there isn’t a lot that separates the top from the bottom teams.”
Leading the charge defensively is red-shirt senior goal keeper Cameron McElfresh. McElfresh — who already earned the Tritons first-ever NSCAA National Player of the Week honors on Oct. 4 —had two shutouts last week en route to his first California Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Week honors. McElfresh has now posted three consecutive shutouts, giving him nine on the season, which tops in the CCAA.
“Cameron is having a great year,” Pascale said. “He’s been the main guy for three seasons now. He’s always been a guy who reads the game very well. He’s not the biggest guy in stature, but it’s hard to find a keeper out there that can read the situations as well as he does and manage the guys in front of him.”
Standing at just 5-foot-11, McElfresh is not as imposing physically as he is in his mere presence. He frequently appears to be yelling on the field, but it is all part of his role as field general, directing players to the right spots and keeping the ball off of the net.
“I have always been more vocal,” McElfresh said. “I’m not a big guy, so any advantage I can get in keeping the ball from getting toward me is a big plus.”
McElfresh took over the goal for good in 2014 for the Tritons. Last season, he made 18 starts, posting a 1.09 goals-against average, while making 45 saves behind a .682 save percentage and posting seven shutouts.
What a difference a year makes. McElfresh currently leads the nation in both save percentage (.917) and goals-against average (.281) heading into Friday night’s bout against Stanislaus State.
“We finally clicked all the parts together that weren’t before,” McElfresh said. “We have a lot of players that were developing last year — some physically, some mentally — and this year we can play the way we want to without having any weak links in the chain. I step up when I need to and so does everyone else. Instead of me needing to make nine or ten saves a game, it’s a lot more about organization, being in people’s ears. I think from the previous years I have had a lot less saves, but a lot more to do with making sure everyone is where they need to be, so the ball is taken care of. It’s a lot of premature action as opposed to last minute, ‘get it out of the net.'”
That’s not to sell their offensive fire power short. Like McElfresh in net, the attack on the opponents’ goal is much improved from 2015. Last year, this team scored a mere 15 goals. This veteran bunch has already scored 23 goals with four games remaining on the fixture. Senior forward Sam Palano — whose twin brother Nick provides valuable minutes as one of the key reserves for this squad — leads the team in points and goals. Senior midfielder Riley Harbour has just three goals this season. Each one of them have been a game-winner, which has him tied for second in the CCAA.
“A lot of it is confidence,” Pascale said. “Riley [Harbour]: Last year was really the first year he was the key guy, not just a contributor. Our results really relied on how well he performed. That was a lot to ask. Now, it’s great to see it all pay off. You would go into any battle with a guy like Riley because you know he’s going to give you everything he’s got.”
For McElfresh, the upgrade in offense only makes the defense stronger. Having outscored their opponents 8-1 over the past two weekends, each goal the Tritons score feeds the energy on the other side of the field.
“Especially for how our team plays, it helps,” McElfresh said. “We are extremely defensive. Any time that we score more than one goal, you can clearly tell that there’s a switch in mentality. We’re very good defending when it’s 0-0. We’re very, very good defending when it’s 0-1. But, you get the second goal, and there is this air of confidence that isn’t there when you are defending one goal.”
The Tritons’ season finale with Cal Poly Pomona became even bigger Wednesday with the release of the first West Regional rankings of the season. The match not only pits the No. 2 Tritons against No. 3 Mustangs in what could very well be the match that decides the CCAA. The Tritons are a deep team with 14 players logging over 500 minutes this season. Pascale knows they are rolling, rising from eighth to first on the CCAA table behind a 6-0-1 record over their last seven matches. As long as they keep themselves humble and grounded, his team could become a dangerous one come November.
“I don’t think there are many teams that can compare with our depth,” Pascale said. “I mean I have guys that I think are really good players that are having a tough time getting on the field regularly. It’s a senior heavy team. We’re just a little more mature, a little more experienced and we have some confidence now, and that could be a scary thing. My job is now to keep them level headed.”