Cameron Iwasa (31), UC Irvine's team captain, and Marco Franco (3) are among the top returners for the Anteaters.

Cameron Iwasa (31), UC Irvine's team captain, and Marco Franco (3) are among the top returners for the Anteaters. (KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot / August 22, 2013)

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The nick of time was unkind to the UC Irvine men's soccer team last season.

But a closer look at the average time of the winning goal in the Anteaters' 10 one-goal defeats — the 91st minute including five overtime goals — indicates that it may have been more than misfortune that led to a 5-14-1 campaign that halted a string of four straight winning seasons.

"One of the telling factors about a team is its fitness," said UCI Coach George Kuntz, who is in his 19th season. "We didn't have that last year. This year, all our [five healthy] seniors made our [preseason] fitness test [requirements] and some of them overachieved."

Kuntz, who guided the Anteaters to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons from 2008 to 2011, during which time they won three regular-season conference titles and two conference tournament crowns, said his team may not need to overachieve to post a winning season in 2013.

"Some people may want to call it a rebound year, but we know we have something," said Kuntz, whose long-range faith in this year's roster prompted arguably the most challenging schedule in the program's history.

Some of that optimism was tarnished when no fewer than four Anteaters went down with torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments, one late in 2012 and the other three in the off-season.

Included among the casualties are senior midfielder Gor Kirakosyan, sophomore defender Matt Tilley and junior defender Victor Calderon, all returning starters that Kuntz said are likely out for the season.

The schedule includes a road date at No. 1-ranked Indiana (Sept. 15), a home clash against No. 9 UCLA (Sept. 19) and another road test at No. 10-ranked Louisville (Sept. 13). Further, UCI opponents Xavier (road), UC Santa Barbara (home) and Cal State Northridge (home and away) were among others receiving votes in the NCAA preseason top-25 poll.

The foreboding schedule, the injuries, and the lack of success last season are all providing motivational fuel for a group of players that Kuntz describes as admirably workmanlike.

"We scheduled up this year and I think it will be fun," Kuntz said. "The guys are amped and excited. They want nothing less than to play against the best opponents possible. That's why they play Division I soccer."

Those guys include proven standouts Marco Franco, Christian Santana, Enrique Cardenas, Trey Hayes, Cameron Iwasa and Tarek Morad, who form a strong group of returning starters that may also include goalie Michael Breslin.

Franco, a defensive midfielder a year ago, is a potential MLS-caliber defender who will likely join Morad in the center of a four-player back line that, along with goalkeeping, Kuntz lists as his team's biggest question marks.

Franco, a senior who has eight career assists, earned praise from Kuntz for his speed, poise and passing skills. He was second-team All-Big West in 2011 and earned honorable mention in last year's all-conference voting, the only Anteater to even be considered in 2012.

Iwasa, who earned the athletic department award for strength and conditioning last season, is a dynamic junior forward-midfielder who led the team with six goals and 14 points (two points for a goal and one for an assist) last season. This year's team captain has nine goals and four assists in his first two seasons.

Santana, an eye-catching senior ball-handler, has eight goals and 11 assists in his first three seasons, while Cardenas, a charismatic senior, has totaled eight goals and five assists in a career plagued by injuries.

Hayes, a 6-foot-5 junior forward, has seven career goals and Kuntz said Hayes has improved greatly due to a renewed focus on his game.

Kirakosyan and Pavle Atanackovic both scored four goals a year ago, while Dennis Martinez and Bryan Breslin, both juniors, each started 13 games as sophomores.

Kuntz said junior Mitchell Alvarez and sophomore Noah Gaines are likely starters at outside back, where junior Thomas Janjigian also figures to contribute.

Mats Bjurman, who started seven games as a freshman in 2012, should start in the midfield and sophomore Elliot Farmer could push Michael Breslin for playing time in goal.

Forwards Arya Haghighi, an ESPN Top-150 recruit, and Leo Klink, a two-time Gatorade Hawaii Player of the Year, are two freshmen to watch.

UCI opens its regular season on Aug. 30 at home against Marist and begins conference play Oct. 4 at UC Davis.

The Anteaters join Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside in the four-team Big West South Division, the top two finishers from which advance to the four-team conference tournament.

UCI plays Chivas USA in an exhibition match on Thursday at 11 a.m. on a practice field near the Home Depot Center. The public is not invited to the exhibition match.