Since he arrived on campus in the fall of 2007, Jared Kukura has been a mainstay in the UC San Diego backfield, starting 33 of a possible 35 games in his first two years with the team. The 6'0'' defender thrived in new coach Jon Pascale’s system as a sophomore last season, scoring three goals and playing stellar defense to help the Tritons finish with a 10-6-2 overall record and 6-6-2 mark in the highly competitive California Collegiate Athletic Association. The San Diego native caught the attention of the other head coaches around the league, earning an All-CCAA Second Team nod for his performance. Extremely athletic and aggressive to the ball, Kukura has a reputation for being both an excellent tackler and strong in the air. But despite high praise from the Triton coaching staff, he is hungry to keep improving as an individual and his leadership will be key to UCSD’s success in 2009. With the season opener less than a month away, Kukura took a few minutes to chat about his goals for the team in 2009, the state of soccer in the U.S., and his plans once college is behind him.
Q: UCSD went 10-6-2 overall under first year head coach Jon Pascale in 2008. What are your expectations for this year’s squad?
KUKURA: I have high hopes for the team this year. With all of the work that we have put in from last spring until now, I expect us to be one of the top teams in the conference. I feel that with the players we have on this team, we should get into the CCAA Tournament and, ultimately, the NCAA Tournament. In our last meeting before summer we made a goal to win a national championship. I expect a lot out of the team and I expect us to work to do whatever it takes to reach our goal.
Q: How do you think you guys will stack up with the rest of the California Collegiate Athletic Association? What will it take to qualify for the CCAA Championships in November?
KUKURA: I see us being one of the top teams in the conference this year. We've shown that we can stay with the teams like Sonoma and Dominguez but this year I expect us to prove we can win against these teams, whether we are at home or away. Getting to the CCAA Championships will not only require wins against these top tier teams, but continuing the hard work day in and day out against some of the weaker teams in the conference. It’s not just about winning the big games, but winning consistently throughout the season, no matter the opponent.
Q: You have started all but two games during your first two seasons as a Triton and you were one of just three underclassmen to earn a spot on the all-conference second team a year ago. Did you expect to have such early success in your collegiate career?
KUKURA: I have no higher expectations than those for myself. Coming to UCSD, I was confident in my abilities and wanted to be one of the best freshmen on the team and in the conference. But, after training with the team for the first week of tryouts, I didn't even know if I would make the team. Once I did, it became a question of whether or not I would get any playing time. By the second week of the season things just fell into place and I became a starter, which is what I was working towards. I met most of my expectations and goals my freshman season. I guess that success just created greater expectations and I raised my goals substantially. The success in my sophomore year was just due to the hard work I put in to keep myself from falling into a "sophomore slump" and wanting to meet my goals I set before the season. I am pleased so far with meeting some of my expectations, but I am not content with what I have achieved, nor do I want to stop improving. My goals for this upcoming season are extremely high, but I expect to work my hardest to achieve them just as I have worked in my first two seasons.
Q: Describe yourself as a player.
KUKURA: If I had to describe myself on the field I would say that I am an aggressive player that loves the physicality of the game. My best attribute as a player is my willingness to sacrifice my body. I go into every tackle and every 50/50 ball in the air with 100% commitment to winning the ball, even if that means putting my body at risk. But, as a player I also know what I need to work on to improve. I am working to add being a better technical player to my description of being a physical player.
Q: Now that you’re an upperclassman, how do you see your role changing on the team? Do you see yourself as a leader?
KUKURA: The last couple of years I've seen my role as just keeping the ball out of the back of our net and giving our team a chance to win. Now I'm one of the older guys on the team and I believe my role is changing to that of a leader for this team. A leader needs to show the face that the team needs to see. I would like to be the one that the guys turn to and can count on to turn things around on the field.
Q: You had a very successful career at San Diego’s University City High School. How did you end up staying in town to play for the Tritons?
KUKURA: Coming out of high school I was really only looking at a couple of colleges, but staying in San Diego influenced my final decision a lot. Plus, I played at University City with Jon Sawyer who ended up coming to UCSD. I got in contact with Jon and trained with the team a little bit during the spring of my senior year and ended up liking playing with a bunch of the guys on the team. I decided that UCSD would be the best fit for me as a player and, as an added bonus I would get to stay in San Diego. I've grown up here and I love that I get to continue my soccer career at home where my friends and family can still come and watch me play.
Q: Talk a little bit about Coach Pascale and his approach to the game. What is the best part about playing for him?
KUKURA: Coach Pascale strives to get us focused on the details for the whole 90 minutes of the game. He likes to have us work on individual skills when we first come back to training and then translate our work to actual games. Outside of the season when we are training he has us focus on improving our own skills defensively and technically so that when we start in the fall he can bring us all together and work with us as a team. His philosophy is that if we can each win our individual battles on the field, then our team should always have the opportunity to win the game. The best part about playing for him is that he is constantly trying to get the most out of you as a player. He will push you because he knows you are capable of more, which makes you strive to keep improving on and off the field.
Q: Cal State Dominguez Hills, one of UCSD’s rivals in the CCAA, put together a terrific run last season to win the Division II National Championship. How do you like their chances to repeat?
KUKURA: Dominguez is a very talented team with a core group of really good players so it was no surprise that they won the national championship last year. This year you certainly cannot count them out for having another shot at the title. But they are our rivals in the CCAA South and we will play them at least twice this upcoming season. We also may end up playing against them in the conference tournament and again in the D-II tournament. I'm sure Dominguez has the same goal that we do, to win a national championship, but they are going to have a much tougher time when they play us than they have in the past. Honestly, the CCAA has a handful of teams that can compete for a national championship, but since we have the opportunity to play Dominguez up to four times, we are going to try to make it harder for them to repeat when they step on the field to play us.
Q: Who are some of your personal heroes in the game?
KUKURA: I love the work ethic of Steven Gerrard on both sides of the ball. One minute, he will drop a bomb from forty yards out and the next he will chase down an opposing forward and finish with a great tackle. But I am also a major supporter of soccer in the U.S. and grew up watching Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk of the national team. When I was younger, I played up top as a forward and tried to model myself after McBride a bit because he is so strong in the air and has a relentless attitude on the field. Hejduk is another one of those players that has a never say die attitude and has been with the national team for almost forever now, which I really respect. Plus, he is a scrappy little player who grew up here in San Diego so I have to be a fan of his.
Q: The United States Men’s National Team advanced to one of the biggest games in U.S. Soccer history in June, facing Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. Does the U.S. have a shot in the 2010 World Cup?
KUKURA: What the USMNT did in the Confederations Cup was really a big step for the team’s image around the world. They barely squeaked out of group play with world powers and many said they didn't deserve to advance. But to blank a Spanish team that had not lost in 35 matches, was really a great showing. It was disappointing that they blew a 2-0 lead against Brazil, but you still have to acknowledge the fact that they are becoming stronger each year. With that being said, the U.S. has not proven that they are a top team in the world, but I do expect another great run from them come 2010 in South Africa. I can see them surprising a lot of people again and would love to see them go deep into the tournament.
Q: Overall, professional soccer’s popularity is on the rise in the U.S. Do you think Major League Soccer will ever fully compete with the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball?
KUKURA: I would like nothing more than to see the MLS rise to the same level as those other major sports leagues in America. I don't honestly know if it will ever reach the same level of popularity, but I am hopeful that it will keep gaining support from the American public. What is great though is that the MLS seems to be getting more support around the world as a legitimate league. The MLS still has a long way to go, but I am glad to see that it is improving as a league itself with its players and the overall performance of its teams. I think the next step the MLS should take is paying its players more because that would really get better players an incentive to want to play in the league.
Q: What is the most important thing you do before a match?
KUKURA: Listen to my iPod. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I put in my
headphones and turn up my warm-up music. I have to listen to my warm-up music: DMX, Rage Against The Machine, T.I., Three Days Grace and a bunch others. Even when we meet for breakfast the day of games, I keep my iPod on. It really helps me focus and puts me in a good mental state. I don't hear any noise from the room or other people talking, which I really like. I just like to keep to myself on game days and my iPod helps with that a lot from the time I wake up until the time we walk to the field from the locker room.
Q: You are a Biochemistry and Cell Biology major and you have said you want to work in pharmaceutical development. Is there a specific aspect of that field you’re targeting?
KUKURA: I'm still not sure what I specifically want to get into, but I would like
to get involved in working to treat cancer. Figuring out new ways to treat cancer with drugs or other therapies is something that interests me. There is the Moores Cancer Center here at UCSD, which I would like to work with sometime in the future.
Q: What have you been up to this summer? Did you go any place interesting?
KUKURA: My summer this year has been very routine. I didn't go on vacation anywhere special and have basically spent every day here on campus with a couple days away every now and then. It has been a lot of waking up early for 7:00 a.m. weights and conditioning, followed by working to paint the fields here on campus, and then practice after work. Normally I would spend most of my time at the beach with my buddies, but it has been hard to find beach time this year. But it’s worth it… I like that I can say I've put in a lot of work for this upcoming season!
Q: What is the best part of being a student-athlete at UCSD?
KUKURA: The best part for me is being in San Diego, I love it here. UCSD is in the toughest conference for Division II soccer with a lot of great competition to play against every week, which I really enjoy. Plus, I get a great education at the same time. I know that whatever I choose to do when I get out of college, I am going to be set up to succeed because of my time spent here.