When the UC Riverside men’s soccer team went winless in September, it would have been tough for even the most diehard Highlander fan to imagine the club winning the Big West South Division, let alone making a deep run into the conference playoffs.
But thanks in large part to head coach Tim Cupello and a squad that refuses to give up, the Highlanders won the south and are preparing for Wednesdays night’s Big West semifinal versus Cal State Fullerton. With one more win, Cupello’s bunch will play in the Big West Championship Saturday for a chance to extend their postseason run to the Big Dance.
It’s been an incredible journey for a team that slumped through the first full month of the season. “September was a tough month for us with regards to result, but not the way we played,” Cupello told me as he and his staff prepared for Wednesday night’s showdown. “It was frustrating because there were a lot of positive things going on with the way we were playing. Many of my coaching colleagues were very impressed with our ability to dictate the tempo of the game. Unfortunately we just weren’t finishing our chances.”
Cupello knows all about finishing chances. After three years as an assistant at Syracuse, he joined the UC Riverside staff as an assistant in the summer of 2010. His big break came three years later, in 2013, when head coach Junior Gonzalez left the school to join Chivas USA of the MLS. Cupello was named interim coach and never looked back.
“Last year was a very exciting time in my career. It was always a goal to become a head coach of my own program, and I’ll forever be grateful to the various coaches I’ve worked with in the past that helped prepare me for this. Due to Junior’s great opportunity to pursue his career goals in the MLS, the timing came a bit sooner than I expected, but I felt well prepared and eager to take on the new challenge.”
The Highlanders went 9-8-3 under Cupello in his first season, but were knocked out of Big West Conference Tournament in the first round by UC Davis. Although he had coached his squad to an impressive record in his debut campaign, he still had some questions going into this season.
“My biggest concerns were fairly basic: How quickly could the new players build chemistry on the field with the returning players? The individual talent is there, but the relationships on the field still needed to be solidified.”
The tipping-point of the 2014 season coincided with the start of Big West play. Four different Highlanders scored first-half goals in a 4-0 rout of Sacramento State, and the club only got better from there. The improvements were never more evident in the squad’s 2-0 upset over then 12-5-2 UC Irvine, a victory that clinched the Big West South Division.
“When we started Big West play, we knew that we had an opportunity to start fresh. We could scrap everything we had done up to that point and try something new, or we could stay true to ourselves and continue to forge on. Credit to our guys, they stayed the course and took advantage of the opportunity a ‘new’ season presented us.”
Cupello’s boys have a great record in both conference play and at home, but the head coach doesn’t think these two factors are the sole reason his players turned the season around.
“Timing,” Cupello said when I asked him about the sudden turnaround after the September swoon. “I don’t think conference play or location had much to do with it – although we do love playing at home in front of the UC Riverside community. I think we have consistently tried to do the same things throughout the season, and now we are at a point where positive results are coming our way. That leads to a bit of confidence, which hopefully leads to more positive results.”
Wednesday night’s semifinals will be the third time the Highlanders have played Cal State Fullerton this season. The first two matches ended in draws, and their last meeting — a 2-2 tie on November 1 — really showcased the resolve and guts of Riverside.
Up 2-1 with 23:27 remaining, Otis Earle was red carded, forcing his mates to play the remainder of the game a man down. Riverside took advantage by tying the score in the 73rd minute on a corner kick.
Then things went from bad to worse.
Stephen Copley picked up a red card with just under seven minutes to play, leaving them at an 11-9 disadvantage, but Cupello’s team wouldn’t surrender. They held the tie for the remainder of regulation and two overtimes.
“Their resilience,” the coach said when asked what he’s most proud of when it comes to his team. “We talk a lot about responding to different situations that come up. We can’t control when something will go our way or against us, but we can control how we respond to those situations.”
Regardless of Wednesday night’s result, Cupello and UC Riverside have every reason to be excited about the future of Highlander men’s soccer.
“This [Wednesday’s game] is another exciting step forward in the progress of our program. We had never been in postseason play until 2011, and since then we have qualified three out of the last four seasons. We have also produced players into MLS draft picks each of the past three seasons. There is a lot of positive progress being made here within our program, and we are excited to continue moving forward.”