By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
When the UNO men’s soccer team takes the field Friday night at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, there will be a lot of firsts on hand. Unfortunately, the Mavs won’t have the luxury of sitting back and taking the moment in.
UMKC, the Mavs’ first opponent, is coming off a year where they went 10-5-3, 4-1-1 in conference, and won the Summit League regular season championship. The Kangaroos return six starters from a year ago, including first team All-Summit League senior forward Jimmy Simon.
Simon’s seven goals in 2010 were good enough to lead a team that many expect to repeat as conference champions in 2011. In the league’s preseason coaches’ poll released Aug. 11, UMKC was picked to repeat as league champs along with Oakland University, the conference’s tournament champions from a year ago.
The Roos also welcome back two second team all-conference players, a player who was first team all-conference in 2009 before an injury last year and another player who was a member of the Summit League’s all-newcomer team in 2010. It’s the first of three matchups that UNO has with future Summit league opponents this season. The Mavs also play at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne on Sept. 4 and at Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Okla. on Oct. 2.
“It is our first game, and we’re playing the Summit League champs so we have to be realistic of where we’re at,” said UNO head coach Jason Mims. “I just think it’s a real good gauge for us.”
After that test on Friday, the team will turn around and be back in Omaha for a game against U.C. Irvine on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. In less than 48 hours, UNO will have played two conference champions from a year ago.
It’s hard to imagine a more difficult way to start a soccer program and start it at the Division I level. The Anteaters of U.C. Irvine went 14-3-3 in 2010 and won the Big West Conference with a record of 7-1-2 in league play.
They’re only expected to finish fourth in the Big West coaches’ preseason poll but are ranked #24 in the nation in the NSCAA Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The Anteaters return senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein, who is a Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award nominee.
Last year, Fontein achieved school records in shutouts and goals against average. He and senior midfielder Miguel Ibarra are two All-Big West first team members that the Anteaters will bring with them to Omaha on Sunday.
U.C Irvine welcomes in the nation’s #39 ranked recruiting class to a program that is among the more established programs on the west coast. The Anteaters have seven All-Americans, 12 Big West titles and have appeared in the NCAA tournament four times.
When Mims was asked what style of play he thinks his team is developing, he said it would probably take competition before he has a handle on what type of team he has.
“I think the players will dictate that,” Mims said. “I think the players always dictate their kind of style and shape and it may take a little bit of time especially since we really haven’t had a game yet.”
When the coach was at UNO’s fall sports media day last week he said that the team had been focusing on defensive work recently. A team that includes 15 freshmen, four sophomores, one senior and newcomers among them all means a pretty steep learning curve.
But 15 of the players on the roster are from the Omaha area and five have national team experience. So there should be some familiarity and some talent on Mims’ first roster.
Whether they’re starting to come together offensively and can find a way to put the ball in the back of the net will be revealed this weekend. But when it comes to talking to his team about what these first two games mean to a brand new program, Mims feels that he doesn’t have to mention it.
“We haven’t talked about that yet. We’re just worried about practicing this week and being organized,” Mims said. “But I think they know the excitement.”
“The excitement is there. There’s a men’s team on campus. I think people in the community are excited, and the people at UNO are very excited about it. First home game on Sunday so I think they feel that…they know that.”