UP women's soccer coach aims to alter team's 'DNA'
The DNA of a soccer program doesn't change in one spring.
But seeds can be planted and expectations defined, and on those fronts Michelle French considers her first spring in charge of the women's soccer program at the University of Portland a good start.
"A couple of things we learned about this team: They've got some fight and they've got some bite. They have the ability to come back after being down a goal once or twice during a game," French says. "So we're starting to try to change the DNA of this team a little bit in a lot of different ways."
The Pilots had two wins and two ties in four spring matches, including a draw in a scrimmage with the Portland Thorns during the NWSL preseason. But spring isn't about results, particularly for a new coaching staff.
This is the first coaching change for Portland women's soccer since 2003, when Garrett Smith followed Clive Charles.
In January, French announced Dominic Doty and Maite Zabala as assistant coaches. Former Pilot Rachael Rapinoe is a volunteer assistant coach and former Pilot Ellie Reed was hired as the program's director of operations. Reed played seven professional seasons, including five with the Seattle Reign.
A McMinnville native, Doty was women's soccer coach at Linfield for four seasons and most recently was an assistant coach at San Jose State. He played college soccer at Santa Clara.
Zabala was an all-conference goalkeeper at California and has been an assistant coach at Cal, at San Francisco and most recently at Boise State.
The entirely new coaching staff inherited a roster peppered with players from this region — many of them underclassmen. The Pilots expect to return 15 field players and three goalkeepers from last season. Among them are six players who got significant playing time as freshmen.
"It's a clean slate with regards to how we look at the team. It's not like we were watching them every weekend (last season) or really knew much about them," French says, adding that she and her staff joked that it was April before they knew what year in school their players were.
"I think we have a really good group of players that are willing to work hard," French says. "We'll see where everything falls for that first game."
Some players will be in new positions next season, she said.
Besides getting to know her players, a priority of spring training sessions and games was to change expectations. The Pilots were 5-13-1 last season and tied for last in the West Coast Conference. It was the fourth consecutive losing season in conference play.
French — a standout player at Portland from 1995-98 who played in three College Cup Final Fours — wants her Pilots to be a proactive team and more assertive than in the style employed last season by Smith.
"We were challenging them to be a little more aggressive and on their front foot on both sides of the ball. We were really emphasizing that," French says.
Many of the current Pilots committed to the program as high school freshmen. That won't happen going forward because a recent change adopted by the NCAA delays campus visits for players until their junior year of high school.
French believes it is good for both coaches and players to slow down the recruiting process.
"If this rule ends up helping the player, then I'm all for it," she says.
The addition of midfielder Jasmine Garibay, a junior college All-American, could provide an immediate lift. Garibay had 12 goals and 11 assists last season at Fresno City College in California.
Another junior college transfer, forward Sydney Warren, who scored 31 goals last season for Peninsula College of Port Angeles, Washington, joined the Pilots before French was hired.
French said one of the early recruiting goals is to find players with the potential to make an immediate impact at Portland.
Players who will join the Pilots as freshmen in the fall are forward Madison Carter from Boise, Idaho; midfielder Destinee Noel Manzo from Santa Ana, California; midfielder Lily Schlake of Meridian, Idaho; and left back Emily Collier of Salem.
Collier, whose addition was recently announced, is a member of the Portland Thorns Academy program. She has been a Class 3A all-state first-team selection twice in her three seasons for Blanchet Catholic High.
Recruiting is an ongoing process and French hopes to announce more additions. She says she is looking for "an impact player, and also just trying to build our numbers."
With that in mind, she went to Europe in early May to visit various youth academy programs.
Practice for the 2018 season begins in early August. The Pilots will play a home exhibition on Aug. 10 with the University of British Columbia. They will play seven of their 11 counting nonconference games at Merlo Field, including their first three, against Northern Arizona (Aug. 17), San Jose State (Aug. 24) and Washington (Aug. 26). Portland plays host to Oregon on Sept. 14 and visits Oregon State on Sept. 16.
"Over the next couple of months, it will be nice to nail down what it is we want to accomplish both on and off the field," French says, "whether that's working more on our culture and team building or whether that's really deciding what our staring lineup's going to be and how we're going to make these players as effective as possible on the field."