Men’s soccer to return in 2021 with new mindset

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Courtesy of San Diego State Athletics

Former Virginia assistant coach Ryan Hopkins (left) instructs a player along the sideline during Hopkins’ tenure as the Cavaliers head coach. Hopkins was hired as the new head coach of San Diego State men’s soccer in January 2020.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

On a typical fall Friday night, the sun sets over Montezuma Road as the bright stadium lights turn on. Fans trickle into the bleachers at the SDSU Sports Deck as the whistle blows to signal that the game is underway. 

The SDSU Sports Deck, home of San Diego State men’s soccer, has sat deserted for over a year as a result of the Pac-12 Conference postponement of soccer to the spring. The Aztecs’ finished the last game of their 2019 campaign with a loss to UCLA at home on Nov. 16. 

15 months later, the Aztecs are preparing to show the Pac-12 what they’re made of. With new head coach Ryan Hopkins, 13 new players on the roster and a whole new style of soccer, the Scarlet and Black are eager to display the new culture they’ve developed during this unusual COVID offseason. 

With the 2021 schedule officially released, Hopkins and his team are counting down the days until their first match. 

“Honestly, in some ways, it’s a little bit surreal because we’ve had so many cancellations, we’ve had so many delays, we’ve had so many almost we’re gonna play’s,” Hopkins said. “I’m just kind of still keeping my fingers crossed and once the whistle blows and I’ll be like, ‘All right, this is actually real.’” 

Junior midfielder Laukoa Santos said the emotions on the team are high as they remember the feeling of soccer being taken away. 

“It’s like seeing a family member you haven’t seen in years, you know because it’s been more than 365 days since we played an actual game,” Santos said. “So the emotions are definitely high. I couldn’t be more excited.” 

Here are four observations to keep in mind as the Aztecs begin their 2021 season.

 1. Attacking a difficult Pac-12 schedule

Hopkins is beginning his journey of becoming a head coach for the first time ever in an unprecedented year with COVID-19. He’s also ready to tackle a schedule in what he said is one of the most difficult conferences of college soccer. 

“I mean, the Pac-12 is no joke,” Hopkins said. “I would say outside of (the) ACC, it’s the best soccer conference in the country. So every game we’re going to play is a big game.”

The Pac-12 conference has developed a prestigious name in college soccer with its results in the NCAA tournament, as well as the high number of players that go on to play professionally in the MLS. 

“Three of the last five National Champions have come from the Pac-12,” Hopkins said. “Everybody is super, super competitive, and we always have high draft picks in the MLS.” 

As a veteran member of the program, Santos knows the challenge that comes with playing in the Pac-12. He’s looking forward to seeing the former three-time national champions, the Stanford Cardinal. 

“Being in the Pac-12, every game is a challenge,” Santos said. “The one that excites me the most is Stanford. They’ve just been a Pac-12 powerhouse for years now, and we had a close game last fall. But every game has the same amount of feeling towards it. Every game is important when we only have 10 this semester, so it’s almost like every game is a championship during this short COVID make-up season.” 

The schedule presents the Aztecs the challenge of having to play every team in the conference twice once at home, once on the road. Hopkins is excited to have the task of changing game tactics when facing a team for a second time.  

“As a coach, you’ve got to do something different for the second game,” Hopkins said. “There’s something you’ve got to change tactically, and so I think there’s a little bit of excitement from that perspective of that familiarity. You have to do a little bit of something different so I’m kind of excited for that myself.” 

This season presents an opportunity of the conference being open for any team to make a championship run than in previous years. Teams have made adjustments with seniors leaving, players going pro and all have been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another.  

Hopkins knows that once the whistle blows, it’s an equal playing field for everyone. 

“There’s no game on the schedule that I don’t think is going to be exciting and it’s going to be an extreme challenge,” Hopkins said. 

 2. 15 months away from soccer allows time for extra practice and new leadership skills

With the men’s soccer typical fall season being postponed to the spring, the team has had extra time to practice and begin preparations for when their time for a season would arrive. 

The team was able to practice five days a week in the fall where Hopkins focused the team’s training on fitness and main playing principles. 

“We got a lot of work in the fall, which was good in just kind of building that fitness base, building our familiarity with each other from being away from soccer for so long, and kind of some of our principles of play,” Hopkins said. 

New technology developments at the SDSU Sports Deck have been another aspect added to the team’s training. 

The program installed a new camera system called Spiideo. The video system follows the ball from 60 feet in the air, zooming in and sending clips straight to the phones for teaching purposes. They’ve also utilized a Catapult monitoring system to track heart rates. 

“We wear GPS and heart rate monitors and we get a ton of data from that,” Hopkins said. “So we’ve been able to teach them how to run more efficiently, where we need them to run, why we need them to run and how much we need them to run. It’s really cool getting all these technology pieces in place and tying it all together.” 

Another significant technology aspect the team utilizes for their training focuses is Zoom. The video platform that has become the norm in the COVID-world allows Hopkins to show his team presentations on attacking and defending principles. 

The biggest part of Hopkins’ offseason preparations was getting to know his team as a new head coach. 

“Being a first-time head coach, a lot of it was getting to know the guys,” Hopkins said. “You know, like what makes them tick.” 

Hopkins also spent time in the fall developing and carrying out a leadership program focusing on character development. 15 players participated in this voluntary program focusing on building culture, leadership traits, accountability, conflict management, racism, and social injustice, fear of failure, and identity in sport. 

“We did a lot of character development and we did a lot of culture building, which is obviously a big, big staple of our program,” Hopkins said. 

With 17 underclassmen and only one senior on the team, leadership has become a role that every player is expected to step into. 

Santos looks forward to implementing the new styles and techniques while playing for his new head coach. 

“I’m excited,” Santos said. “It’s been great since he stepped on campus. He really looks to formulate true men on and off the field, and I asked for nothing more than that. The guys on our team really look up to his enthusiasm on the sideline.”

 3. Aztecs set their main goals to accomplish on the field this season 

After going 4-12-2 overall (1-9 in Pac-12 play) last season, the Aztecs are hungry to change the narrative following them. 

Santos said the program’s biggest overall goal for this upcoming season is to be the hardest-working team in the Pac-12. 

“We got picked as last in the preseason poll, and that kind of lets us have a chip on our shoulder to come out and prove the Pac-12 wrong,” Santos said. “I think that’s the biggest goal, honestly. In my 3-4 years here, we’ve always kind of been the underdog in this conference, and we’re fine with it. But we’re looking to prove the committee wrong and prove the coaches wrong who voted in that preseason poll.” 

The team also has another goal of having no back-to-back bad days — whether that’s in a game, at practice or in weight training. They’ve also set the goal of going .500 in conference play — in other terms, beat each team in the conference at least once out of the two times they play. 

For Hopkins, his biggest goal is to build the culture to create a great program for years to come. 

“As much as I came here to build a great team, I came here to build a great program,” Hopkins said. “For me, it’s just continuing to apply our principles of play, continuing to grow together as a group that holds each other accountable, wants to serve each other, has a great love and passion for each other and a passion for competing together.”

He also has goals of getting his program back to the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs’ last appearance was in 2016 when they lost 2-1 to UNLV. The last game the Aztecs won in the tournament was the semifinals against Harvard in 1987. That team went on to the national championship, where they lost 2-0 to Clemson.

As the pieces continue to come together, Hopkins feels his team has strong potential. 

“I think if we continually put those pieces together, the potential in this program is really, really high,” Hopkins said.

 4. Kickoff set for Feb. 11

The Aztecs’ first game of the season is set for Feb. 11 against Dixie State at the SDSU Sports Deck. 

With all the changes and postponements the Aztecs have endured, the moment of stepping onto the field and hearing the whistle blow will be one with higher emotions this time around. 

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion to step on the field with my brothers and teammates and go at it,” Santos said. “We’ve been kicking each other in training for almost a year and a half now. So it’ll be nice to go and kick someone else.”

Since his hiring as the program’s fourth head coach in January last year, Hopkins has eagerly waited for his moment of coaching his first college soccer game as a head coach. It’s a special moment for Hopkins, even more so due to everything he’s gone through to get his team ready in a pandemic year. 

“I might tear up a little bit,” Hopkins said. “Everyone who knows me knows I’m a little bit of a sentimental guy. I might get choked up a little bit just because it has been a lot of a lot of hard work. It’s been really hard on these guys, and it’s been really hard on our department.” 

Hopkins said he’s thankful for all the support staff behind the scenes including the athletic training staff, academic advisers, equipment managers, county health officials and all those assisting in daily health screening for his team. Because of their help and dedication, the 2020-21 season opener has become a reality.  

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