KICKING INTO GEAR
As much fun as his first season as the University of Portland's men's soccer coach was for Nick Carlin-Voigt, he understands his work has only begun.
"We all know in sport the hardest thing to do is to win after you've won," Carlin-Voigt says.
The Pilots also understand that after going from last place to first place in the West Coast Conference, they won't surprise opponents in 2017.
The first practice was Wednesday. On Sunday the Pilots will play an exhibition match at Stanford, the first of three warmup games before officially kicking off the 41st season of Pilots men's soccer on Aug. 25 at home against UNLV.
Nine seniors led the turnaround in 2016. Turning the page meant that during the spring — when the Pilots scrimmaged against United Soccer League teams Timbers 2 and Sounders 2 and four Northwest college teams — UP focused on finding the players who will step into prominent roles in 2017.
"Spring is a tricky time because you don't have your seniors and you don't have your incoming freshmen. So you are limited with bodies," Carlin-Voigt says.
The Pilots went 2-2-2 in the spring.
"We were able to move the needle forward. At the end of the spring, we took a lot of injuries and didn't get the results we wanted. So our guys were reminded that winning is never guaranteed," the coach says.
Many returning Pilots spent their summer playing for the Timbers' and Sounders' under-23 teams in the Premier Development League. The Timbers U-23s are based in Salem. Midfielders Gio Magana-Rivera and Rey Ortiz and forward Benji Michel, who all were significant contributors last season as Pilot freshmen, helped the Timbers U-23s win the Premier Development League Northwest Division before losing in the second round of the playoffs.
In addition to looking for redshirted players and others to step into leading roles, Carlin-Voigt has recruited some key pieces to help fill the void left by the nine departed seniors.
"We went through a transition this spring. Losing three of four defenders in the back line are big holes in terms of our defensive robustness, our defensive compactness. Part of spring was answering those questions of who in house can step in," Carlin-Voigt says.
Recruiting also has allowed the Pilots to fill some immediate needs.
"In the recruiting process, we needed to have a little bit more experience, a little bit more age. You can't really replace nine seniors with nine freshmen, so that was the philosophy," Carlin-Voigt says.
For example, Carlin-Voigt recently got a commitment from left back Spencer Myers, who spent five years in the youth academy at English Premier League club Everton. Myers is expected to compete for the starting left back spot the Pilots hoped Marco Farfan would own for several years.
A recent Centennial High grad, Farfan signed with the Timbers and has started five matches as an 18-year-old rookie in MLS.
"How do you replace that? It's happening to programs all over the country," Carlin-Voigt says. "There are more mechanisms for young Americans to bypass college and sign. I still personally think we're a great development league — one of the better development leagues in the world for a 19-year-old player who wants to turn into a professional."
Myers, who had been released by Everton, is not the only newcomer from Europe who could have a big impact in 2017.
Hanno Antoni, a graduate transfer who was an NCAA Division II All-American last season at Barry University, is a versatile player from Germany who brings size (6-1) and experience (age 24).
Also recently signed is 19-year-old Luke Hendel, a midfielder who grew up playing in the youth academy for German club Hertha Berlin.
Among the eight incoming freshmen in a recruiting class ranked fifth in the nation by College Soccer News are players from Portugal, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who each recently attended the International School of the Hague. The class also includes midfielder Caua Soares, a native of Brazil who played at Florida's Montverde Academy.
They reflect a growing trend of players from overseas looking to compete in American college soccer. Carlin-Voigt says Germany alone has multiple agencies looking to place players in college soccer.
"These kids are realizing, I can do both. I can study at a world-class institution and play at a high level. In Europe, you can only do one of those things at a time," Carlin-Voigt says.
Finding players to fit his program is a fun challenge, he adds.
"I enjoy the general manager aspect of the job, trying to put the pieces together and get the right mix and blend and flow. What personalities are going to work together?" he says. "And then try to recruit to the system I want to play. Some coaches just bring in the best players and then figure out the system. I have a very specific style of play I have implemented in terms of how we want the game to look.
"Then figuring out the best representatives for that style of play and for the University of Portland. We're an elite academic school, and it's very challenging off the field academically, very time-consuming and very rigorous."
As he welcomes new players, Carlin-Voigt is focused on strengthening a culture that includes personal growth and commitment to team as core values. He praises his first team for its commitment to team spirit, unity and cohesion on and off the field.
"I was incredibly proud of our program and our players and what they represented, not just on the field but off the field," the coach says, reflecting on 2016. "It was a group of guys to their credit who were very hungry. They already had culture established.
"We talked a lot about expectations and standards of behavior and ways to earn the right to have fans. No one's going to come watch a losing team," Carlin-Voigt says. "Not only do we want to win, but it was about (attractive soccer), play off the pass and open play up and be dynamic, and we were able to do that."
It wasn't a fluke. A year after winning only one WCC match over the previous two seasons, the Pilots had elite talent on every line of the formation.
One of the key additions last season was defender Kris Reaves, a transfer from Wake Forest and member of U.S. youth national teams who, as a junior in 2016, brought a winning pedigree to Portland.
West Coast Conference player of the year Eddie Sanchez contributed six goals and seven assists while playing in only 14 games as a senior.
Michel was the WCC freshman of the year after scoring 10 goals.
Junior Paul Christensen was the WCC goalkeeper of the year as the Pilots went 6-1 in conference and outscored those foes, 15-4.
"We had an elite player in every line. And then we had a lot of glue guys, so to speak, which is what a winning team needs," Carlin-Voigt says. "We couldn't have won without the new guys. But we absolutely could not have won without the nine returning seniors. And everyone meshed and bought into this mantra we developed of one team, one goal, one family."
The pressing on-field questions as the 2017 season approaches are who will replace Sanchez's offense and who will fill the spots around Reaves on the back line.
Among those who Carlin-Voigt hopes can provide offense is senior Jason Romero, a transfer who had two goals and two assists for UCLA last season.
Part of the process of making Portland a top program is scheduling top opponents. This fall, the Pilots will face traditionally strong programs Virginia and UC Santa Barbara in addition to Pac-12 teams Oregon State and California.
"Some people think we're crazy to play the schedule that we are. Every team on our schedule can beat us," Carlin-Voigt says. "But for our guys, we have elite players who want to play the best teams possible. I know our guys will be up for the challenge."