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Lobo Devon Sandoval gets ready for a shot Saturday against Tulsa at University Stadium. UNM has a strong team this year and may be ready to make another run in the NCAA tournament.

‘11 team mirrors ‘05 glory

It’s been a disappointing few years for the Lobo men’s soccer team.

For most teams, making it to the NCAA tournament almost every year would be a reason to celebrate, but not for the Lobos.

UNM has been a perennial national powerhouse since head coach Jeremy Fishbein took the helm in 2001, and the team has made the NCAA tournament five times in the past six years.

After losing the NCAA national championship game 1-0 to Maryland in 2005, the Lobos have struggled at times to make it back to the highest level of college soccer, and have been without a striker who simply knows how to finish.

While they have made the NCAA tournament for the past two seasons, they have fallen in the first round after losing at home to Portland 2-1 in overtime in 2009, and last year were crushed on the road by Creighton 4-1.

But in 2005, the year of UNM’s poised run, the team had senior leadership in Brandon Moss, Lance Watson and Jeff Rowland.

Contributing to the team was goalkeeper Mike Graczyk, who left the program with 0.67 goals against average, the lowest in UNM history, and solid defender Andrew Boyens. All five stars on that team would end up playing in the MLS, with Boyens representing New Zealand in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The team in 2005 had the perfect mix of skill and leadership, but most important was a player who could put the ball in the back of the net.

Rowland would finish that season with 16 goals. The closest any UNM player ever came to Rowland’s record was Chris Wright, who in 2007 scored 12 goals.

The Lobos did not score in seven games last year; last year’s leading scorer finished the season with just four goals.

That team had a mix of international players and home-grown talent, which is much like the new look for Lobos this year.

On paper the Lobos look like a young team with only two seniors, Lance Rozeboom and Michael Green, but they have some surprising parallels with the team of 2005.

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They have 10 players on the roster from New Mexico, the most since 2005, and while they don’t seem to have a player who is going to score 16 goals for them this season, they have multiple threats, all of whom can score.

Junior Blake Smith has many of the attacking similarities that Watson brought to the left wing, and Devon Sandoval, Carson Baldinger and James Rogers all look like they will be able to chip in some goals.

Add the speedy Lawrence Robledo, Rozeboom and Green to the mix and you have a solid core of scoring midfielders.

While the Lobos have lacked in offense in the past few years, they have never struggled with defense.

This year looks to be the same, as defenders Kyle Venter and Travis Campbell look strong enough to hold down the Lobo backline, and while goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez does not have much playing time under his belt, he looks ready to contribute to the team.

Baldinger and Rogers can both come off the bench to provide the goals, while Patrick Pacheco, Nick Miele, Adrian Mora Delgado and Giovanni Rollie can support the midfield and defense.

The team has looked impressive so far in its two preseason games, beating Grand Canyon 2-0 and Tulsa 3-1.

Every player has repeatedly said that nothing more than a conference title and a deep run in the NCAA tournament will be sufficient for the team this year.

The 2011 team has a different look and feel than any other: The teammates have put their egos aside and are all out there to play for each other and win for the team.

This year it’s not about who scores the most goals or who makes the all-conference team, but rather how many games they win.

The Lobos will find goals, especially from playmaker Smith, and Sandoval has the knack of scoring when the game is on the line.

The defense looks strong already and will only get stronger as the season goes on.

Fishbein has finally found the missing pieces of the puzzle.

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