The UNLV backline has been impenetrable for four straight games. Combined with the NCAA’s second-leading scorer, and the Rebels have been one of the hottest teams in the country to start 2014.
The Rebels have been rewarded with their first top-25 ranking in over two decades, as Top Drawer Soccer has UNLV at 23rd after a 5-0-1 start. That’s the best start in school history since the 1985 team started 10-0.
It has been 419 minutes and 57 seconds of game time since UNLV last conceded a goal. That spans four straight shutouts, plus nearly 30 minutes of game time from the opening weekend of the season. While goalkeeper Ryan Harding has been solid in net for UNLV, the defense hasn’t been allowing quality scoring opportunities.
In the last four games, UNLV has allowed just six shots on goal. Senior center back Kyle Mellies has won nearly every aerial ball that comes near the UNLV 18-yard box. Mellies was recently named the WAC defensive player of the week. (The Mountain West doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer, so UNLV plays in the WAC.)
But UNLV’s star has been Salvador Bernal, who is third in the NCAA with six goals this season. Bernal had a hat trick in a 4-3 victory over Bradley and scored the game-winning goal to upset 14th-ranked UMBC. Bernal scored just four goals as a junior last season, but he had a career-high eight goals to lead UNLV in scoring in 2012.
UNLV’s lone blemish on the season came in 0-0 tie with Detroit on Sunday. Detroit frustrated the Rebel attack by concentrating on Bernal. UNLV has used Bernal to create scoring chances up the left side of the field all season long, but Detroit didn’t give Bernal any space.
Spencer Steinwascher, the Detroit right back, marked Bernal for nearly the entire game even when Bernal would look to receive passes near midfield. Steinwascher’s only responsibility was to shut down Bernal anywhere in the Detroit half of the field. That pressure, along with the support Steinwascher got from his center backs, kept Bernal quiet all game.
UNLV will have to get more creative with Bernal, as opponents will focus their defensive attention to him. Bernal has played a few minutes on the right side of the field this season, and in overtime against Detroit he was moved to the central forward position.
UNLV will be back in action on Saturday, as they travel to play at Gonzaga. The next home game for UNLV is Friday, Sept. 26 against UC Irvine, as a part of the UNLV Rebel Classic. You can watch all of UNLV’s home games or replays of previous games here.
Also, the NSCAA’s top 25 will come out on Tuesday. UNLV was not receiving any votes for last week’s ranking, but were fifth in the West Region.
And because the top 25 makes no sense regardless of the sport, Top Drawer Soccer’s top 25 has UNLV is two spots behind UMBC (3-2-1). The Rebels knocked off UMBC Friday night, and UMBC lost again in overtime to unranked Cal State Fullerton on Sunday.