Aug. 22, 2006
The most successful era in Ohio State men's soccer hopes to add another chapter in 2006. 10th-year head coach John Bluem and 17 returning letterwinners have been to the NCAA tournament four of the last six seasons, but a trip back to the postseason in 2006 would be the Buckeyes' third in a row, which would mark a first for the program. Eight starters and five of the team's top six scorers are back for that quest.
And speaking firsts, the Big Ten championship returns to OSU's Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in November for the first time since 2000 when the Buckeyes hosted and won the conference title for the first time in program history.
Ohio State went 11-8-2 overall last season and 3-2-1 in the Big Ten. A 5-1 start to the season included a win over UCLA and saw the Buckeyes climb as high as No. 11 in the national polls. A 4-0-1 streak late in the year helped catapult Ohio State into the NCAA tournament.
"We want to be in the NCAA tournament every year," Bluem said. "Four of the last six is a good start. Three in a row would be a first for Ohio State. It's a lofty goal and it's not going to be easy. Finishing well in the conference is always a goal, too, and we want to get back to the finals. That's what we should be all about. We want to be playing our best soccer at the end of the season."
Four seniors departed from last year's team, two of which were selected in the third-round of the MLS draft. Goalkeeper Ray Burse was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes and went to Dallas as the first keeper picked, while defender Kyle Veris, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick was selected by Los Angeles. In addition, senior forward Kevin Nugent, who scored four game-winning goals last year, departed and is on the practice squad of the Columbus Crew.
"We lost four players who all were instrumental in our success the last two years, and two of them are now on MLS rosters in Ray Burse and Kyle Veris," Bluem said. "We need people to step up now. We might have more good players this season, but not as many special players. Special players impact the game on a regular basis. They are dangerous players and are the better players on the field every game. We need our good players to step up and become special players."
Nine players who started at least eight games are back for Ohio State, including five of the team's Top 6 scorers from last year. Nugent led OSU in scoring with 20 points (8 goals, 4 assists) a year ago, but forward Xavier Balc, now a junior, was close behind with 18 (5 goals, 8 assists). Last year as a freshman, midfielder Danny Irizarry ranked third on the team in scoring with eight points (2 goals, 4 assists), followed by classmate Geoff Marsh (6 points, 2 goals, 2 assists) and juniors Eric Brunner (5 points, 2 goals, 1 assist) and Ryan Kustos (5 points, 1 goal, 3 assists).
Balc was a third-team all-region pick in 2005 and was responsible for the Buckeyes' last eight goals of the season, either by scoring, assisting, or forcing an own goal. Irizarry was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
In the back, three starters return, including seniors Jim Fisher and Dustin Kirby and Brunner. Kirby, a second-team All-Big Ten pick last year, is in his fourth year as a starter, while Fisher is in his third and Brunner is in his second at Ohio State after playing his freshman year at Maryland.
In the midfield, returning starters include Irizarry and four-year starters Taylor Korpieski and Brent Rohrer, who was a second-team All-Big Ten pick in 2005. Combined, senior Rob Strachan and Marsh comprise the fourth starter, as the two combined for 18 starts last year.
Gone is Burse, but his understudy for the last two years, junior Casey Latchem, is poised to take over the starting job. A pair of newcomers will vie for the back-up job in redshirt sophomore transfer Byron Neal and freshman Corey March.
"For the last two years Casey has been as good as a starter but has been mainly sitting on the bench," Bluem said. "Casey has had the opportunity to be a starter at different times and has proven capable and now will play on a regular basis. Now it's his team and we hope he responds."
Three of four starters are back, while talented backup sophomore Tim Gabel is penciled in to move into the fourth starting position this season. With Kirby, Brunner and Fisher all seasoned veterans, the OSU defense could once again be the strength of the team.
The offensive creativity of Korpieski and Irizarry, the pace on the flank of Strachan and Marsh and the defending of Rohrer give Bluem a starting core that will play most of the minutes. That group will have no shortage for quality assistance, though. Nine players on the roster are listed as midfielders and several others have played there and could again this season.
In addition, senior Antonio Garcia played in all 21 games last year and again will be one of the first players off the bench if he is not in the starting lineup already. Junior Kyle Retzlaff and junior transfer Steven Traeger will contribute centrally or on the flank, and freshman Ben Frasher will work into the mix, as well.
Like 2004 All-American Justin Cook and Nugent before him, it could be Balc's turn to be the Buckeyes' primary goal-scorer. Unlike Cook and Nugent, however, Balc is actually more of an attacking midfielder by nature, as is OSU's other forward, Ryan Kustos.
"Xavier is a talent and we expect great things from him again," Bluem said. "If he has a great season, both scoring goals and giving others goal opportunities, we will go a long way. Ryan has played an important role in our midfield in the past."