After 18 years without NCAA Division 1 men’s soccer in the Rio Grande Valley, last year the Vaqueros revitalized the men’s soccer program at UTRGV to bring back one of the Valley’s favorite sports at the highest level of collegiate play.
In 2015, the Vaqueros finished their first year back with a 5-12-1 record overall and a 2-8 record in the Western Athletic Conference. While the record might have not been a bright spot, the competitive nature of the squad was evident. The team battled in conference play and in eight of 10 conference games one goal determined the difference on the final scoreboard.
Head Coach Paul Leese, who has spent three years building the men’s soccer program at UTRGV from the ground up, talked about the experiences of forming a foundation.
“We’re trying to get new players connected with the system and build new habits. When you have new players coming in, you usually have a bunch of new styles of play,” Leese said. “They may have done one thing with their old team and we’re asking them to do something different and you don’t change habits in five days, we all know that, so that’s the biggest challenge. It’s a process and it takes time.”
The Vaqueros have their work cut out for them in 2016 as they will square off against three teams who qualified for the 2015 NCAA Soccer Tournament when they take on Cal State Fullerton and WAC foes Utah Valley State and the nationally ranked Seattle University.
“For us, the better opponent you can schedule and play against, the more they’re going to expose you for the areas you need to work on more. We want to play the best teams in the country because by doing that it can only make us better. It will be a challenge,” Leese said.
Conference play begins on Sept. 30 when the Vaqueros enter the WAC season,competing against 1 0 other conference teams in hopes of finishing among the top six to earn a spot in the 2016 WAC Men’s Soccer Tournament.
The Vaqueros were voted to finish 11th place in the WAC in a preseason coach’s poll by the 11 conference coaches. They will use this year, proving doubters wrong.
Senior captain Juanito Garcia returns after leading the team in goals scored in 2015 with three, and is excited to be back out on the pitch getting acquainted with his new teammates.
“It’s been a long time coming, we’ve been waiting a long time for this. We’re really excited and really anxious to get out here,” Garcia said. “Our team goal is to finish first or second in the WAC and having that top seed in the WAC tournament. Every game is a new challenge for us to keep on building on our main goal and our main focus.”
Spearheading the Vaqueros attack will be junior forward Olli Tynkkynen, who led the team in shots with 27 in 2015, and sophomore forward Isidro Martinez, who led the team in assists with five on the season. The team totaled 20 goals last season and hopes to improve on that number in 2016.
Coach Leese is working to build cohesion with his second year team, getting the student-athletes to buy in mentally and work together so the program will continue to take steps forward.
“It’s a disciplined mindset.Every single player must know what they’re responsibility is and the role of their teammate out there. That’s discipline and that discipline to be in the right position at the right time and make the right choice when you’re playing with the ball at your feet,” Leese said. “We’re trying to instill that in our players to make the right choice at the right time.”