SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In his 24th year at the helm of the program, Sacramento State men's soccer head coach Michael Linenberger sat down to do a Q&A before his team begins a historic season.
Linenberger and the Hornets will compete as members of the Big West Conference in 2012 after spending 20 seasons in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Sacramento State won MPSF titles in 2009 and 2010 and also advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons.
In the following interview, Linenberger talks about the move to the Big West and discusses his team prior to opening up the 2012 regular season on Friday at Oregon State.
Q: With two preseason games and training camp in the books, what have you learned about your team?
Linenberger: “We’ve made tremendous strides from the first preseason game to the second game. We weren’t sure where we stood going into the Stanford match (first game). We played pretty well in the first half but Stanford kind of picked us apart in the second half and exposed some of our areas of weakness. We worked on those things over the next three or four days going into the Cal game and we were quite pleased with how everything came together. We are pleased with the progress we’ve made and we are ready to start the season now.”
Q: You played two keepers consistently all last season. Has either Cesar Castillo or Bryan Oliver stood out thus far or will that split continue?
Linenberger: “We split them in the two preseason games, both got a start. They are both sharp and playing well and it’s going to be another big battle between them. We have not decided yet who we are going to start against Oregon State on Friday, but I can see both of them getting good minutes again this year."
Q: You talked a little bit about the keepers, can you break down the defense?
Linenberger: “The back line is a veteran group for us this year. We have three seniors starting in Casey Bernard
, Matt Linenberger
and Oscar Torrico
. The fourth back will most likely be a freshman. Right now the two guys who are battling for it are Adam Rodriguez
and Nate Nugen
. Both have performed well. Adam has a slight advantage in that he’s a more natural outside back; he played that position in youth soccer while Nate was more of an attacking player growing up. We see a lot of value in converting Nate to defense because he reminds us a lot of (former Hornet) Kasey Cox
, but he still needs to learn some of the nuances of the position.”
Q: How is the midfield shaping up?
Linenberger: “It has been solid as well. It’s another veteran group, with Chris Sandoval
, Alex Lopez
and Almog Strikowski
being our three primary players. Chris is a senior, and although he hasn’t seen a lot of minutes with us because of injury, he has been playing very well in the preseason. Lopez is very sharp. He played all summer in Des Moines, Iowa, in the PDL (the top-level men's amateur soccer league in North America) and was very good there. Almog is the Energizer Bunny, he never stop working and running. Isaac Florez will be there as well. He missed the first week or so of camp because of an injury but is back now and is very fit. He played 20 minutes against Cal and looked good. We have a freshman, Cesar Mendoza
, who will get some time in there as well. We have a very deep and veteran midfield."
Q: How about up top?
Linenberger: “We have a lot experience back at forward as well. Senior Max Alvarez
is the focal point and we also have juniors Gabe Silveira
and Isaac Ikyurav
. All three have been strong so far. With Max, we’re hoping he can score goals for us this year like he did as a freshman. He was hurt as a sophomore and junior but is playing better than ever this year. He had a great summer in Tucson with the PDL. We think it’s toughened him up. He’s working really hard on both sides of the ball and challenging in the air. He has really cleaned up some of the weak parts of his game and we think he’s a total player now. Isaac has been a big bright spot in the preseason. He scored against Cal and was our most dangerous player against them. He’s come in fitter than he’s ever been. It took him a year to figure out Div. I soccer after growing up in Nigeria. Now he understands the value of defending, fitness and working hard."
Q: You’ve mentioned a couple freshmen already, but what newcomers have stood out the most in camp?
Linenberger: “I think the three freshmen that have stood out the most so far are Cesar Mendoza
, Nate Nugen
and Adam Rodriguez
. Those three have risen to the top the quickest. Bert Corona
is starting to find his rhythm and we’re excited about that. Our third goalkeeper, Teddy Sampson
, played 20 minutes in the extra period at Cal and made a couple great saves. We think he’s going to be huge for us in the future. Maybe not right now with a senior (Oliver) and a junior (Castillo) ahead of him, but we’ve been very happy with the progress he has made.”
Q: What about some veterans that have taken the next step?
Linenberger: “Max Alvarez has been tremendous. He’s shown a lot of leadership and maturity. He’s always been kind of a quiet guy but his personality is coming out this year. Alex Lopez
has been named our team captain and we’ve been very happy with his overall leadership. He’s playing well. Casey Bernard
is getting stronger and fitter every day. Matt Linenberger
had a great summer in Tucson with the PDL and came back fitter than I’ve ever seen him. He’s lean and mean. Oscar Torrico
, a fifth-year senior, is a solid, solid guy and very reliable and will get a chance to play a lot this year."
Q: What is the make-up of your team like?
Linenberger: “We have a veteran group of guys this year but we also have a young group of first and second year players who are fighting for time. We have the luxury of starting veterans at almost every spot with a freshman or two getting in there. A lot of our depth on the team is young depth. They still need to get experience but the talent is there. Our young guys got a taste of the college game in the first two preseason games, but the real thing starts this weekend.”
Q: You are moving from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation to the Big West this season. How do you view the challenge?
Linenberger: “We are very excited about it. The MPSF was great to us. We were an inaugural member and the longest tenured member in the league. It was a great conference for us, especially the last few seasons when we had a lot of success. But the Big West makes a lot of sense for us. Geographically we are paired with like universities, all UCs or CSUs. It’s also a very strong conference. Last year it was rated the second toughest in the nation and is routinely in the top five while the MPSF was usually in the top-10 or top-15. The Big West is set up exactly the same as the MPSF, with two four-team divisions like we had before. So we’re very familiar with that and we're also very familiar with the teams in the league. We’ve played two or three Big West opponents every year. Having said that, we know its different playing teams for points and championships as opposed to two or three non-conference games. Being in the Big West, we’re excited that we don’t have to leave the state of California any more. No more getting on airplanes, no more playing at altitude. We’re also looking forward to getting some of these teams to come to our place, like UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly. Cal State Fullerton has actually never played here in the history of our program. Playing UC Davis twice a year is really exciting. We think it’s a great move and we’re looking forward to the challenge."