Coming into the season, the Cal Poly men’s soccer team faced two very sobering questions.
Could the Mustangs score? They certainly didn’t do it all that much while racking up just 15 goals in 18 games in 2011.
Could they stop goals? Last season was the low-water mark in Cal Poly history. The Mustangs gave up only 17 goals, setting single-season program records for total goals allowed and goals allowed per match before most of the defenders graduated.
The one-dimensional lean of last year’s squad resulted in a disappointing 6-9-3 overall record and a 3-6-1 mark in the Big West Conference. But returning only one defensive starter from that team, it begged the question whether one dimension is better than none.
Six matches into the season — and with Harvard and No. 12 UCLA visiting Alex G. Spanos Stadium this weekend — the Mustangs are scoring and stopping goals.
“It’s a really telling evolution of the system that we’ve implemented,” said Cal Poly head coach Paul Holocher, who visited Spain in the offseason to study Barcelona’s training system. “The idea was to become a more attacking team and to do that kind of in a little shift in how we possess the ball.
“The results have been that we’re controlling the game more. We’ve kept possession and we haven’t had to defend as much for as long of periods. So you’re seeing us score more goals and maintain the good defensive numbers from last year as well.”
The Mustangs (4-2-0) have already scored nine goals this season, 60 percent of last season’s total in just one-third of the matches.
They’ve also given up just two goals during the current four-match winning streak, the longest since 2007.
If Cal Poly beats Harvard (1-3-1) in a game scheduled for tonight at 7, the Mustangs will head into Sunday’s 4 p.m. showdown with the Bruins (4-1-1) with the longest winning streak since the program’s first season at Division I in 1994.
Cal Poly has never won six in a row.
“UCLA is going to be a fun one,” junior midfielder George Malki said. “They’re top 15, and I think if we play well, we’re at Spanos, and I think we’ll be able to do something special this weekend, maybe win another two games and get the win streak up to six. That would be nice.”
Junior forward Mackenzie Pridham leads Cal Poly with three goals. He has one two-score game and two game-winners this season after scoring two goals combined in his first two collegiate seasons.
Chris Bernardi also has a two-goal match to his credit. Chris Gaschen has scored twice, and Malki and Ian Clark have scored one apiece. Malki and fellow midfielder Matt LaGrassa are tied for the team lead with two assists.
The balance along the stat sheet is also a byproduct of Cal Poly’s new system, where passing percentage is just as important as anything else.
“That has to do with other players doing their things as well,” Pridham said of the spread-out scores. “They’re finishing the ball, and we need more players to be scoring balls, midfielders, wingers, everyone. It can’t be one person, so the more people are scoring the better.”
The Mustangs also have a couple of familiar-looking grind-it-out victories to their credit. They beat Valparaiso to kick off a five-match homestand, and in their most recent victory, 1-0 over Army, the Mustangs needed a saved penalty shot by freshman goalkeeper Wade Hamilton in the 88th minute to make a Pridham goal hold up.
Hamilton and sophomore Chase Hauser have split the starts in goal, giving Cal Poly two options where the Mustangs have tried to rely on only one in previous years.
“If you’re a goalkeeper and you know that every fourth game you’re going to get a start, you’re going to be training hard,” Holocher said. “There’s not a clear-cut starter. There’s not one starter and another guy who’s waiting around all year for a guy to get injured. We have two starting guys. They train like that every day, and we have no qualms about starting either of them at any point.”
The Mustangs’ record would be pristine if not for a two-match losing streak to start the season.
Cal Poly was shut out in respective 1-0 and 2-0 losses to Seattle and Washington in Holocher’s hometown, creating doubt as to whether a 3-1 preseason exhibition victory over Holocher’s alma mater, Santa Clara, was for real.
“That was a tough weekend for us,” junior defender Mike Hocker said, “but I feel like we got the kinks out and since then the communication has definitely been better and we’ve been focusing on that in training.”