SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Sacramento State men's soccer team opens the 2014 season in a state in which it has never before competed, playing Temple in Philadelphia on Sunday at noon pacific time.
The Hornets return seven starters from last season, including 2013 Big West all-Freshman team defender Andrew Gosselin. Three senior starters return in forwards Chimdum Mez and Adan Martinez and defender Mason McCann, and eight sophomores return after seeing significant action in their rookie seasons.
"We're cautiously optimistic," 26th-year Sacramento State head coach Michael Linenberger said. "We've been very pleased with our preseason. Our new guys have adapted quicker than expected and some of our young returning guys, who as freshmen the light bulb hadn't really turned on yet, have been playing very well in the preseason.
"We're happy where we're at right now and are excited to see us play in a real game against an established division I program. We'll come back from Philadelphia with a few more answers and a few more questions I'm sure."
Despite a 3-11-4 record in 2013, the Hornets were competitive in almost every match, creating scoring chances and limiting quality opportunities for their opponents. What was missing was finishing, as the squad scored just 11 goals in 18 matches to equal the fewest goals scored in a season in program history.
The team was scoreless in a 0-0 tie in its lone exhibition game last Saturday at Pacific but the shots were 13-5 in favor of the Hornets, who created a plethora of quality scoring chances. Creating chances and finishing those chances is paramount for any team to be successful.
"We struggled to score goals last year and that's an area we tried to address in our recruiting as well as with our training in the spring," Linenberger said. "You could look at the UOP game and say 'here we go again', but we created a lot more chances than we did in most of our games last year and were pleased with our possession and chances created. We lacked a finishing touch and their goalkeeper had a fantastic game, so we just want to continue to plug away and try to improve our final action in front of the goal."
Sacramento State returns just two players (Gosselin and Mez) that scored goals last season. Among the eight newcomers to the program, six can play in the midfield or forward, with rookie strikers Brad Bumgarner, Cylus Sandoval and Devante Raynor among those that Linenberger hopes can add a scoring punch.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Hornets have the most experience. The team returns its entire starting back line from 2013 including Gosselin, McCann, and sophomores Preston Davis and Javier Muñoz. The quartet led the Hornets to five shutouts in 2013 and combined played more than 90% of the total defensive minutes last season.
The squad did lose all-Big West second team goalkeeper Cesar Castillo, who graduated from Sacramento State ranked second in program history in shutouts, saves, and wins. Of the three keepers on the 2014 Hornet roster, just one, sophomore Teddy Sampson, has played in a division I game. With redshirt freshman James Del Curto and redshirt sophomore Philip Bru the Hornets have three quality backstops that will continue to battle for time in net.
"We played all three in the exhibition and we think we have three good goalkeepers," Linenberger said. "They're all pretty young and none of them have much division I game experience. We don't think much separates them and we haven't made decisions yet. We'll make a decision as to which one we feel will give us the best chance to win."
In Temple the Hornets have a quality high major opponent that went 10-4-4 overall last season and was 3-1-4 in the American Athletic Conference. The Owls, who return seven starters, have three players on the Preseason all-American Conference team including senior goalkeeper Dan Scheck, who recorded nine shutouts last season.
Temple opens its season on Friday hosting in-city rival Drexel. Sacramento State will travel roughly 2,800 miles to face Temple while Drexel will travel 2.9 miles.
Sacramento State has never before competed in the state of Pennsylvania. The trip is the first to the east coast for the team since playing in a tournament at Duke in 2010. For a young Hornet team that includes 17 freshmen and sophomores, a lengthy trip early in the season, before the added pressure of schoolwork, could be a great learning and bonding experience.
"It's going to be an interesting trip," Linenberger said. "We have all day Saturday to kind of acclimate before the game on Sunday afternoon. Normally I would say its not ideal traveling across the country for one game, but you can look at it as a positive; It will be educational for the guys - none of them have ever been to Philadelphia.
"On Saturday we'll train a little bit but we'll also go see the liberty bell and see the city and that can be fantastic for camaraderie. It's early in the season and we're by ourselves for a few days and school hasn't started yet. We're hoping it will be a very positive experience for us."
An experience that hopefully is capped with a season-opening road win for the second consecutive year. The Hornets opened the 2013 year with a 1-0 double overtime win at San José State on a goal by Mez.
And the Hornets have something big to look forward to when they get home. Starting next Friday the team will play seven consecutive games at home, the longest home stand in program history.