Pilots will have a chip on their shoulder
The record says the University of Portland men's soccer program took a step back in 2019.
Nick Carlin-Voigt, who is entering his fifth season as Pilots coach, doesn't see it that way.
"It's a sign of a healthy program when you have a winning season, but you still want more. You still feel like there was another level inside that we couldn't consistently get to all year," Carlin-Voigt said.
A year after earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and winning a first-round game against UCLA, the Pilots finished 9-7-1 -- but were 3-4 in the West Coast Conference and lost their final two games by a combined score of 9-3.
Portland was 8-2-1 at home, and fourth-year seniors Rey Ortiz and Gio Magana-Rivera were 31-7-4 at Merlo Field. But a 1-5 away record kept the Pilots from a top spot in the WCC.
With strong play from experienced defenders Francesco Tiozzo, Brian O'Hara and Esteban Calvo and junior goalkeeper Nico Campuzano, Portland was statistically the 11th-best defensive team in the country through 15 games (10 goals allowed) and before the closing one-sided losses at San Diego and at Saint Mary's. But a lack of offensive pop meant any defensive mistake was difficult to overcome.
It was no surprise that the Pilots struggled to replace the scoring punch of Benji Michel, who departed after scoring 31 goals over three UP seasons and had an encouraging rookie season in MLS for Orlando City (five goals in 17 MLS games).
"I knew it was going to be a challenge replacing Benji ,and it was. Our leading goal-scorer (Luke Hendel) only had five goals," Carlin-Voigt said. "It's hard to be a championship team and a team that's in the tournament at the end of the year when your leading goal scorer only has five goals."
Hendel, a 6-2 junior in 2019 from Germany who plays both forward and attacking midfield, could have had twice as many goals with a little better fortune and finishing precision.
"The margins are really small, and we're really close," Carlin-Voigt said. "Luke will be a big part of us trying to get to that next level."
Injuries made it difficult for the Pilots to overcome the departure of Michel. That included Rey Ortiz and Magana-Rivera, whose summer lingered into the season. Still, Carlin-Voigt praised the contributions from two of his earliest recruits at Portland. He noted that both are first-generation college students from their families who will graduate.
"That's really what this mission is all about," the coach said. "Of course you want to win games and build a championship program and hold trophies at the end of the year. But the most important thing is the growth and the positive student-athlete experience."
It got better for Ortiz, who was the 29th pick in the MLS SuperDraft by FC Cincinnati, becoming the fourth Pilot to get an MLS opportunity in the last three seasons.
Seeing Ortiz drafted was satisfying for Carlin-Voigt, as the program has delivered on the promises he made to his first recruits, with a WCC title in 2017, several top-20 rankings, wins over Pac-12 foes, an NCAA tourney home match in 2018 and Pilots moving on to pro soccer.
Injuries contributed to the challenge of replacing Michel's scoring.
Kevin Ogudugu, a freshman forward with citizenship in Norway and Nigeria, showed early promise but missed eight midseason games with an ankle injury and finished with one goal.
Yusuf Cueceoglu, a junior transfer from Villanova out of Germany who was expected to play a big role in central midfield, was lost to an ankle injury after four games.
Eason Embly, a former USA youth team midfielder expected to step into a prominent role as a junior, redshirted because of a lingering injury.
Injuries are an unavoidable reality of college soccer, but not an excuse for the Pilots falling short of their goals.
Members of Portland's highly-regarded 2018 recruiting class — midfielders Jake Arteaga, R.J. Stretch and Greg Tracy and forward Alejandro Pereira — logged significant minutes. So did freshmen Jacobo Reyes, Ben Ortiz and Delentz Pierre.
Reyes was a bright spot. A veteran of youth national teams in the U.S. and Mexico, Reyes is a dynamic attacker who finished with three goals and five assists. He was a Top Drawer Soccer Freshmen Best XI selection.
One of two freshmen invited to an MLS combine prior to the SuperDraft, Carlin-Voigt said Reyes might have a pro soccer opportunity before next season.
Another player who might get pro opportunities is Kevin Bonilla, a Pilots commit out of the FC Dallas Academy considered one of the top outside backs in the high school class of 2020. Bonilla has played for the U.S. under-20 team and was called into camp ahead of games against Mexico Jan. 16 and Jan. 18.
Several transfers will have the opportunity to make an impact, including Costa Rican forward Jason Reyes, who will be a junior in 2020. He was the Conference USA freshman of the year for Kentucky in 2018, when he scored seven goals.
In 2016, Carlin-Voigt was surprised when Pilots commit Marco Farfan signed with the Timbers out of high school. Increasing opportunities in the United Soccer League and elsewhere in the U.S. for teenagers adds to the recruiting puzzle.
The trick is finding players likely to stick around for four years and develop into key players while also pursuing elite players who might leave early — especially elite attackers who can be game-changers.
"You're trying to get the right blend of guys to create a special culture, a culture where the team has one vision to be the best college soccer team they can be. If everyone's successful in that endeavor, then opportunities at the (pro) level are going to open up," Carlin-Voigt said.
The disappointments of 2019 should help prepare the Pilots for a better 2020, Carlin-Voigt said.
"Portland is back on the national map. The goal is to be in the (NCAA) tournament. We know that's hard, and that will fuel us moving forward," he said. "Our talented freshmen will understand what it takes to be successful in college. We'll be a year older, and we'll have a chip on our shoulder."
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