There are a couple intriguing things you probably didn’t know about George Malki.
The Cal Poly men’s soccer midfielder played all of his All-Big West Conference junior season last fall in excruciating pain. Then he nearly turned pro a year early.
The Malki factoids don’t end there. He used to spend summers working in his parents’ French fine-dining restaurant in Arizona, and before training at the junior levels of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, he also played ice hockey.
But that junior season with the Mustangs was a crossroads. Malki was prepared to leave college soccer behind. Instead, Cal Poly has a senior leader back poised to build on a terrific season.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Malki said. “I’m super happy to be back here this year, and I know we’re going to make a good run.
“For us seniors, it’s our last chance to win a Big West or go to the playoffs, and I feel like our success if we want to go farther is going to be a big team effort. If we do well as a team, our players are going to have a chance to play at the professional level, whether it be in MLS or abroad.”
Just as senior forward Mackenzie Pridham did this past summer with Toronto FC of the MLS, Malki trained with Swedish pro team Assyriska prior to last season.
Malki felt he performed well enough that he began thinking about skipping his senior year and attempting to turn pro right after his junior season.
But during that same training stint with Assyriska, Malki also suffered a groin injury that gradually worsened to help sink the idea.
He played all of last fall, an 11-7-1 campaign where the Mustangs got as a far as the Big West Tournament semifinals.
“Oh my God, it was probably the most brutal pain I’ve ever had in my life,” Malki said. “I really couldn’t go to sleep after games because it was like a chronic pain.
“Trainers wanted to keep me out, coach wanted to keep me out, but it was just an instinct. I wanted to stay in.”
But after the season, Malki needed separate surgeries for a sports hernia and an adductor tear. Not being 100 percent, he knew it wasn’t time to gamble on a pro tryout and risk his NCAA eligibility, so Malki came back to Cal Poly in the spring.
He joins additional all-Big West honorees Pridham and senior defender Connor Drechsler, another pro prospect, on a skilled and experienced Mustangs team that also welcomed a top-35 recruiting class when training camp began Wednesday.
Eight starters return from last season, the first in which eighth-year head coach Paul Holocher truly installed a possession-style game patterned after FC Barcelona with training techniques gleaned straight from the Spanish club.
Scoring was up, so was the team’s success, and Pridham became the team’s first Big West Offensive Player of the Year after scoring 11 goals, including six game-winners.
Pridham, a Toronto native who’s also spent time with the Canadian junior national team, came back even more confident from his training stint with Toronto FC.
“What I really took out of it,” Pridham said, “is the high level of fitness, physicality, knowledge of the game and just overall professionalism on and off the field.
“And also, I have a shot to play at the next level. I know I can do it. It’s up to me and how much I put in and commit myself.”
Said Holocher: “That was a very good opportunity, and we have a few guys in our senior class that are guys that have the potential to go play professionally.”
Malki, Pridham and Drechsler “are three guys that have put in a lot of great games here at Cal Poly and are close to getting that shot,” Holocher said. “They’re very motivated for that.”
First, they will have to try to lead the Mustangs to their first Big West title and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008.
Also back are senior midfielder Mike Hocker, Cal Poly’s leading returning assist maker, and sophomore goalkeeper Wade Hamilton, an all-Big West honorable mention pick after playing just 12 matches and making 11 starts last season.
The season starts with three road matches, including games at nationally ranked Creighton, a College Cup semifinalist last season, and UCLA, last year’s Pac-12 regular-season champ.
Then comes a five-game homestand starting Sept. 9 against Gonzaga.
“We have a season already under our belt with the system we’re trying to play and the identity we’re building,” Pridham said. “We have a group of guys that got a lot of experience last year.
“We had a good season and we accomplished a lot of things, but when it comes down to it, our program still hasn’t won the Big West, and we didn’t go to the tournament. So my goal is to build off and improve on what I did last year, and also hopefully get to the Big West Tournament and to the NCAA Tournament.”