Search for Pilots coach has many takers
Women's soccer at the University of Portland is not what it once was.
The Pilots won national championships in 2002 and in 2005, reached the NCAA final four eight times and made it to the quarterfinals 14 times. They have not even been in the playoffs since 2013.
In the past four seasons, Portland is 10 games under .500 in West Coast Conference play and has finished no higher than fifth.
Those numbers explain why the Pilots parted with Garrett Smith after a 5-13-1 season, his 15th as head coach and 26th with the program.
To return some of the shine to a once-proud program, Scott Leykam is looking for a coach able to succeed in a changing recruiting landscape, someone who can excite alums and the community. The vice president for athletics at UP, Leykam has plenty of interested candidates.
Among them are candidates who played college soccer on The Bluff.
"This is a fascinating search, because — without naming names — we have a lot of alums that have gone on and are doing well (coaching) at the club level or the national level or the collegiate level. So that's definitely a spot we're looking at," Leykam says.
It is, in fact, an underappreciated part of Clive Charles' legacy that so many of his former players have found careers in soccer. That coaching tree is a factor as Leykam seeks only the third head coach in program history.
"We have a lot of alums with close ties to the university who understand our tradition but who have carved their own niche and their own identity, which is important," Leykam says.
At the same time, interest in the opening has come from a broad range of candidates. Leykam says top assistants at power conference schools and several coaches who have led programs into the NCAA postseason are among those who have expressed interest.
Leykam and associate athletic director Jason Brough are conducting the initial search. The plan is to bring several top candidates to campus to meet with University of Portland administrators, women's soccer staff and current players.
By the end of November, Leykam wants to have a new coach hired.
"From a recruiting standpoint and for engaging the current roster, that's important," he says.
One challenge: the playoffs continue all month. That could delay the interview process if a candidate's current program makes a long postseason run.
Assistant coaches Lisa Chambers and Miguel Guante, both former Pilots players, remain on staff during the search. Leykam says he will encourage whomever he hires to meet with them, but the new coach will choose the assistant coaches.
Leykam wants to see the women's roster evolve. The Pilots teams that made deep runs in the playoffs included a number of key players from outside the metro area. This season, 17 of the 22 players were from Oregon and Washington.
"It's always going to be important for us to have some local players. Portland, Vancouver, Southwest Washington are critical, but we need to supplement that with Southern California, Northern California, the Phoenix area, the Denver area. We had fallen off that a little bit," Leykam says.
Recruiting women's soccer players has changed significantly in the decade since the Pilots were a national power.
"Soccer recruiting looks a lot more like basketball and some of the other sports where there are main (youth) clubs in markets that have control of the best talent," Leykam says.
And, in women's soccer, the youth landscape continues to evolve. Established in 2009, the Elite Clubs National League — which holds its fall showcase tournament Friday through Sunday in Phoenix — provides national-level competition for girls, beginning at the under-14 age group. More recently, programs such as the Portland Thorns Academy provide a place for the most skilled and motivated young players to develop.
Leykam says men's college soccer programs have adjusted to losing players to MLS and its academy programs. Women's college soccer is beginning to face similar challenges.
International players, and players transferring after completing degrees, are two recruiting pools where the Pilots men's program has found contributing players. The women's program must look at similar options, Leykam says.
Leykam met with team leaders last week to get their take on the direction of the program.
"They talked a lot about a big reason they came here was the tradition of the program," Leykam says.
The players, Leykam says, talked about keeping traditions alive but choosing a new coach "who is going to bring a new perspective, who's been somewhere else, and is going to put a fresh set of eyes on the program."
Acknowledging that it's more challenging than ever for a "mid-major" program such as Portland's to compete with established powerhouses from the five BCS power conferences, Leykam says the Pilots need to deliver consistent success. Women's soccer, he notes, is a UP program where the coaching salaries are at the top of the WCC.
"If you look at the top 25 in women's soccer, it looks a lot like in football and men's basketball. So we understand that cracking that upper crust is difficult," Leykam says. "But for me, we need to be in a position where we're competing for the WCC title every year and making the NCAA tournament every year and hopefully making a run."