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Despite injuries and COVID-19 protocols, University of Portland is excited for the opportunity to play.

COURTESY PHOTO: UP ATHLETICS - Senior midfielder/forward Luke Hendel (33) is the most experienced Pilot, having played in 44 games, and will be a key player for Portland this spring.The way University of Portland men's soccer coach Nick Carlin-Voigt sees it, just getting to compete this spring is a win for his players.

The season that is scheduled to start Wednesday, Feb. 3, with a home match against George Fox will be anything but normal. As Carlin-Voigt noted, there are daily changes to navigate, from player availability to the steps necessary to train as a team.

But the challenges have not dimmed Carlin-Voigt's excitement.

"I'm so grateful that we're able to try to have this spring season," the coach said, crediting the university administration for making it possible.

Carlin-Voigt's goal, in addition to winning as many games as possible, is to give his student-athletes an experience that is as close as he can make it to what they anticipated when they came to Portland from all over the world.

The Pilots started full training sessions in mid-January, though the participation was significantly less than a full roster. At the end of January, 13 squad members were unavailable for a variety of reasons — ranging from injuries to travel or other COVID-19-related restrictions.

In a preseason poll of West Coast Conference coaches, Portland was picked to finish third behind Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary's, just ahead of San Diego.

Building a team to push for a WCC title and a berth in a modified, 36-team NCAA Tournament scheduled to conclude in mid-May will require flexibility.

For one thing, the Pilots' defense has been decimated by injuries, including ACL tears suffered by junior Nicholas Denley (McMinnville native and Concordia transfer) and freshman Deryk Jones Jr.

Heralded recruit Kevin Bonilla, who Carlin-Voight believes can be one of the top right backs in college soccer, will miss at least the first month of the spring season and maybe the entire schedule.

Also expected to miss the spring season is sophomore Delentz Pierre out of the Real Salt Lake Academy, one of two Pilots on the West Coast Conference preseason all-conference team. Both Bonilla and Pierre turned down professional contracts to play for the Pilots in 2020-21.

The injuries in the back have meant moving some more attack-minded players into defensive roles. But Carlin-Voigt said his team will still focus on playing aggressive, attack-minded soccer.

"Our ideal approach is still to be a team that's aggressive, that has the ball and dictates the way the game is played," Carlin-Voigt said.

While short of proven defenders, the Pilots should have plenty of midfield options.

Attacking midfielder Luke Hendel, a Berlin, Germany, native and the other Pilot on the preseason all-conference team. Hendel has played a team-high 44 games over three seasons and scored a team-high five goals in 2019.

COURTESY PHOTO: UP ATHLETICS - Junior midfielder Jake Arteaga has played in 33 career games for Portland. He might play a more defensive role this season because of backline injuries.Juniors Jake Arteaga, R.J. Stretch and Greg Tracey each have played more than 30 college games, as has senior Caua Soares. Yusuf Cueceoglu, a redshirt junior, started the first four games in 2019 before he was injured. Graduate transfer Miguel Yuste (Yale) is among the newcomers in the mix.

Those veterans are joined by Class of 2020 freshmen and transfers that were rated the sixth best in the country by Top Drawer Soccer.

Portland does not have an established goal-scorer. But Carlin-Voigt said his team has a variety of ways to score, including the speed to get behind defenses.

At goalkeeper, the 25-year-old Jacopo Viola from Italy will bolster a position where none of the three younger players on the roster has started a college game.

Carlin-Voigt praised the commitment his players made to their fitness under difficult circumstances, but noted there is work to do to get into competitive shape.

"You just can't do enough to get these guys' bodies back" to where they should be entering a soccer season, Carlin-Voigt said.

Each training session needs to balance the conditioning and skills work needed with building on-field connections. Carlin-Voigt said his goal is to play the same proactive, on-the-ball style he prefers while maintaining positional balance.

"How advanced can we get (in training)? It's something we talk about every day," he said.

But the biggest pandemic-related loss is the lack of team meals and other bonding activities that Carlin-Voigt said are at the heart of the program, of building a tight team and of the college soccer experience he promises recruits. Despite that, or perhaps because they understand that the next game or training session isn't guaranteed, Carlin-Voigt raved about the spirit among the players.

In fact, he does not hesitate to point to unity and togetherness as the strength of his team entering this spring season.

"Our belief in one another and in the program is our greatest strength," Carlin-Voigt said.

• The Pilots' most recent dominant attacker, Benji Michel, who turned pro in 2019, was a part of the United States men's national team for its Jan. 31 match against Trinidad and Tobago, which was played in Michel's hometown of Orlando, Florida.

• In addition to seven WCC matches, beginning Feb. 28 at home against Saint Mary's, the Pilots have six non-conference games scheduled including Sunday, Feb. 7, at Oregon State and Feb. 14 at home against Washington.

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