YOUNG PILOTS READY FOR SEASON TAKEOFF
The University of Portland men's soccer team kicks off its 2018 season next week with three exhibition games — and with more questions to answer than coach Nick Carlin-Voigt faced at the start of his first two seasons as Pilots coach.
In part, those questions reflect the roster turnover that happens in college soccer. With four seniors, this will be the youngest of Carlin-Voigt's three teams.
In this case, however, the big question is: How good might the Pilots be?
Carlin-Voigt landed a recruiting class Top Drawer Soccer ranked as the third-best in the nation. The newcomers will join a core that includes a trio of budding stars — forward Benji Michel and midfielders Rey Ortiz and Gio Magana-Rivera — and upperclassmen pushing for their chance at significant roles.
"On paper, we're a little younger. With that comes potentially some inconsistency," Carlin-Voigt says, "but with that also some freshmen who don't get overwhelmed by the moment because they don't know any better. The game ultimately doesn't know how old you are, and the best guys are going to play."
Leadership is another unknown. Carlin-Voigt says it will be a shared responsibility this season, and who steps forward is one thing he'll be watching during preseason practices that began Wednesday. The process started in the spring, when the Pilots' scrimmages included matches against Portland Timbers 2 (a 3-1 loss) and Seattle Sounders 2 (a 2-1 win).
"We didn't have a very deep team in the spring," Carlin-Voigt says. "But we're expecting a younger team but a fun team in the fall, with more competition for playing time than we had in the spring."
Among the players the Pilots must replace are two now with MLS clubs: goalkeeper Paul Christensen (Atlanta United) and defender Kris Reaves (FC Dallas, currently injured).
Those departures and the graduation of Matt Coffey, a leader in midfield, provide opportunities for returning players to step up their game.
Goalkeeper is among the interesting position battles. Redshirt senior Kienan Weekes gets his chance after backing up four-year starter Christensen. He will battle Spanish goalkeeper Nico Campuzano. And freshman Georges ElKhory arrives from Sharon, Massachusetts.
"Nico is an incredible student who wants to do engineering," Carlin-Voigt says of his recruit, who spent three years in the FC Barcelona system. "He understands UP's rich history of academic excellence and championship soccer."
Building back-line depth was a focus this spring after injuries impacted Portland's late-season results. The Pilots came up short of repeating as West Coast Conference champions in 2017, finishing second and missing out on the NCAA tournament despite a strong RPI — a disappointment that spurred their offseason work.
Coming off injuries are defenders Malcolm Dixon and Leo Mills and midfielder Shane Aranda.
A pair of transfers with two years of eligibility — Brian O'Hara (Cal) and Francesco Tiozzo (Winthrop) — also got plenty of work at center back this spring. Jabari Newton, injured in the fall after transferring from Memphis, will try to build on a strong spring at outside back.
Over the summer, the Pilots added Costa Rican midfielder/defender Esteban Calvo, a transfer from Florida International.
Brennan Weber, a Central Catholic High grad entering his senior season, and redshirt sophomore Drew Boyd each got multiple spring starts on defense in the spring.
"Our goal was to have two established, consistent starters at each position. I'm not sure we're there yet, but I think we're closer," Carlin-Voigt says. "And then we need the top end of our roster to perform and to really lead the way guys like Eddie Sanchez and Kris Reeves and Paul Christensen did in the past."
Perhaps the best sign of progress this spring was the continued improvement of Michel, Ortiz and Magana-Rivera. As sophomores last season, Michel and Ortiz were first-team members of the United Soccer Coaches Far West Region team. Ortiz was second in the nation in assists per game, and Michel's 10 goals led the WCC.
"That is always a good litmus test for your team — are your best players developing still or are they plateauing?" Carlin-Voigt says. "Those three continue to add things to their game."
That includes finding different ways to respond when opponents focus on them and take away their strengths.
"We have a counter to that, and we've asked them to continue to develop technically, continue to develop their soccer brains, move into different spaces on the field," Carlin-Voigt says.
The coach also expects more off the field from his most talented players.
"Now they are upperclassmen. With that comes more responsibility, not just for their own performance but for those around them," Carlin-Voigt says. "So I've asked them to take more ownership in the locker room ... and make sure our mission and vision are coming alive every day in our habits."
Michel, Ortiz, Magana-Rivera and defenders Dixon and Tizzo played this summer for the Timbers Under-23s, the Salem-based Premier Development League team. Other Pilots were with other summer teams.
"It's good for them to play with a different organization in the summer and stay sharp and work on some of their deficiencies so they come back to us very sharp in the fall," Carlin-Voigt says.
Portland's talented incoming freshmen kept busy during the summer. Midfielder/defender Jake Artega was a member of the United States Under-19 team that took third in the Slovakia Cup in early May. Recruits Kelee Cornfield-Saunders, Alejandro Pereira, Greg Tracey and Tristan Weber each have some experience with U.S. Soccer youth national teams. All of the seven incoming freshmen spent their summer in the U.S. Development Academy, PDL or United Soccer League.
Artega and Cornfield-Saunders were the only incoming freshmen who did not attend summer school. They helped the Los Angeles Galaxy's Under-18/19 academy team to the U.S. Development Academy national championship match, where they lost to New York City FC on penalty kicks.
"We will need at least a couple of the recruits to supply some firepower right away," Carlin-Voigt says. "I've always been a coach who has given freshmen opportunities right away."
He pointed to Michel — who projects as one of the best strikers in college soccer this season — as an example. The Orlando, Florida, native went scoreless in his first eight college games as a freshman in 2016 before breaking out. He has 20 goals in 28 games since.
"He's hungry to be a professional. He's very powerful, very athletic, and continues to grow in his maturity and his understanding of what it takes to be elite," Carlin-Voigt says.
The addition of the proven scorers in the recruiting class should only help players such as Michel and Ortiz thrive. Carlin-Voigt says players who come from youth national teams and the most competitive Development Academy programs usually transition well to college soccer.
"I'm very confident the new pieces are going to adapt. How soon that process takes is anyone's guess," he says.
The schedule should challenge both the newcomers and veterans. Eight of the 12 home games come at the start of the season, including a visit from Atlantic Coast Conference power Syracuse on Aug. 26. Overall, seven opponents have been in the NCAA tournament at least once in the last three seasons.
"My philosophy since entering college soccer 13 years ago has always been, if you want to be the best you have to not only play the best but you have to beat the best," Carlin-Voigt says. "Last year, we had the toughest strength of schedule on the West Coast for a team with a winning record. We executed the schedule and nearly got an at-large bid."
The Pilots will play four of their seven WCC games on the road in 2018. Carlin-Voigt notes it's the same schedule Portland played when it won the conference in 2016. And, after playing its conference schedule without a week off in 2017, the Pilots will have a bye week this season.
"We'll have to be a team that's very brave and aggressive and aims to try to play the same style of football we do at home when we go on the road," Carlin-Voigt says.
That style is proactive. Carlin-Voigt wants his team to score goals and play on the attack as much as possible. He says he is confident his club can execute in at least two formations.
His goal is to use August and September to develop consistency and use the favorable home schedule to build the Pilots' national credentials. But the only sure-bet ticket to the NCAA tournament is winning the WCC via a challenging seven matches over five weeks, beginning on Oct. 6.
"Our league is just as difficult as the Pac-12 or the ACC," Carlin-Voigt says.
Pulling in highly-touted recruits helps, particularly with many programs stacking their rosters with players from Europe and elsewhere.
"We know winning is very difficult, especially in college soccer in this era of parity," Carlin-Voigt says. "We have some internationals, but we're not a program that has 20 internationals on our team like some programs we're going to be facing. I still believe in the American player."
Strong ties to the youth academy teams in Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, helped Carlin-Voigt upgrade the talent pool in just a couple of years at Portland. The recent recruiting success is encouraging, but it's just another step, he says.
"Continuing the rebuild of UP men's soccer going into Year 3, I think we're ahead of schedule," he says. "But we're not content."