Tarek Morad has been a key defender for UC Irvine, which has reached the NCAA Tournament's round of 16. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / November 9, 2011)

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  • Marco Franco (3), a defender, has helped UC Irvine produce 10 shutouts this season. Marco Franco (3), a defender, has helped UC Irvine produce 10 shutouts this season.
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Like gears engineered with precision, synchronous by design, Marco Franco and Tarek Morad operate cohesively within conversational distance of one another on the soccer pitch.

Both senior center defenders for Big West Conference Tournament champion UC Irvine, the duo, with their less-than-menacing middleweight physiques, continually shut down opposing attackers with the acumen of master pick-pockets.

If it's a shin-scraping tackle, or a strong-armed tug of a jersey to gain positioning that is your idea of entertaining defense, you wouldn't much care for the consummate finesse with which these two former Chino Hills High teammates deliver healthy doses of frustration to strikers whose worth is judged on a statistical scale.

And while their first responsibility is protecting the clean sheet (soccer slang for a shutout), their talents spill over to the Anteaters' offense. Whether it be one of Franco's deft dribbling runs to generate an attack, or Morad's visionary passing to align his allies in maximum striking capability, they are two of the most dependable and valuable weapons in Coach George Kuntz's lineup.

Together, Franco and Morad have helped UCI (15-4-3), the No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, reach the round of 16 against No. 5-seeded Maryland (14-3-5 ) on Sunday at 2 p.m. PST. They have also helped UCI produce 10 shutouts. In addition to sophomore goalkeeper Michael Breslin, and outside backs Bryan Breslin, a junior, and Thomas Janjigian, a freshman, they are largely responsible for opponents managing just 18 goals in 22 games.

Franco, a 5-foot-11, 155-pounder who started parts of all four seasons in the program, was the Big West Defender of the Year this season, in which he has two assists to bring his career total to 10. The former defensive midfielder is the faster of the two, according to his partner.

"I feel like Marco plays more like an outside back," Morad said. "He likes to dribble and go and beat attackers. He's more dribble-oriented and he has the speed to do it, unlike myself. I feel like I play the position from a defensive midfielder mindset, where I'm always shifting the ball. I try to thread the needle, play simple, play quickly and get out of pressure. I think I can bring that composure to center back and help my team that way."

The 6-2, 161-pound Morad, a two-year starter who transferred in from Mt. San Antonio College, is one of two team co-captains. He has three goals and two assists in his UCI career, though none of either this season, when he was shifted from center midfielder to center back.

Franco says they compliment one another and have more similarities than distinct differences in style of play.

"He's a little bit better in the air than I am," Franco said of Morad, whom Franco helped sell to Kuntz as a potential recruit. Morad, originally slated to play at UC Riverside, had his scholarship offer revoked by Highlanders coaches, prompting him to spend one season on the community college level.

"I'm a little bit faster and I like to attack with speed," Franco said. "Overall, I think we're pretty similar. We're both pretty technical, we are intelligent, and we like to play at a fast pace and organize in front of us."

Morad said soccer IQ is an element that gives both an advantage.

"We may not be stronger or a lot faster, but we think a lot more quickly," Morad said. "We watch soccer constantly and we understand the game and read the game really well. I think that aspect is a big part of our success."

Morad also acknowledged that chemistry between the longtime teammates is a strength.

"I basically feel like we're the last line of defense, the last guys to protect our goal and our goalkeeper," Morad said. "So we have a lot of responsibility on our backs. It would be different if our chemistry wasn't as good as it is. It's cool that we've grown up together and we're able to play together."

Franco and Morad, both former Sierra League MVPs who both were two-time All-CIF Southern Section honorees at Chino Hills, have helped UCI win eight straight matches, a program record. Their play helped allow the 'Eaters to claim the Big West South Division crown, the program's fourth conference regular-season title in six years. And UCI, on a nine-game unbeaten streak, has now blanked opponents the last 348 minutes of action.

UCI, coming off a forgettable 5-14-1 season in which it had 10 one-goal losses, returned to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years in 2013. Its 15 wins are one away from matching the school record set in 2011. With its 1-0 second-round win over North Carolina on Sunday at home, it doubled its previous total of NCAA Tournament victories and matched the 2008 Anteaters by advancing to the Sweet 16.

This year's squad enters Sunday's clash with a 5-0 record against ranked opponents, including wins over then-No. 5-ranked Cal State Northridge, then-No. 11-ranked UCLA (now ranked No. 1), and then-No. 16-ranked Louisville.

Kuntz has said Franco has enough ability to play in Major League Soccer and both Franco and Morad would like to get opportunities to play professionally. Both are on pace to graduate in 2014, but both would put school on hold immediately if it meant shipping out to professional soccer assignments. Morad is in line for a degree in international studies, while Franco is majoring in criminology.

Until then, they remain focused on enhancing their already strong legacy at UCI.

"We keep saying that we want to win a national championship," Morad said. "It's like, why can't we win a national championship? That's a question we can't really answer, because we believe we can. We think we have a good enough team and we want to make history within the program."