Third-round NCAA soccer home match a first for Portland men
In the proud history of the University of Portland men's soccer program, Saturday, Nov. 26, will be a benchmark day.
For the first time in program history, the Pilots will host a NCAA Tournament third-round match, welcoming Western Michigan to Merlo Field for a battle between two unseeded teams with contrasting styles.
The match kicks off at 5 p.m. and will be live on the ESPN+ streaming service, though the Pilots are hoping a boisterous crowd can help them make more history.
The winner will advance to face either Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed, or Pittsburgh on Dec. 2 or Dec. 3 in the national quarterfinals.
Portland coach Nick Carlin-Voigt knows his team will have at least some support back in Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of the Broncos team that stands between the Pilots and another victory. Carlin-Voigt grew up in Kalamazoo. His ties to the city, including having his mother and siblings there, were highlighted in a story published this week by Michigan news outlet mlive.com.
But, those ties won't have any influence on how his team performs, Carlin-Voigt emphasized. His sole concern is that his tight-knit team gets to stick together for at least another week.
The Pilots carry a 14-2-3 record into Saturday's match, and will attempt to keep a perfect home season going. That success, including wins over UC Riverside (3-0) and Oregon State (2-0) in the tournament, is a reflection of talent and dedication. But coach and players point to the bonds of a group led by fifth-year seniors who have grown together through successes, failure and challenges.
"This team doesn't have an ego. There's no superstar," Carlin-Voigt said, noting that the team's 50 goals are spread among multiple players and positions. Winger Brandon Cambridge has 12 goals and seven assists. Strikers Jacob Babalai and CJ Tibbling have combined for 15 goals. Midfielders Sebastian Nava (four goals, 10 assists), Gurman Sangha (six goals, six assists) and Nick Fernandez (seven assists) are among the leading attackers.
"I would challenge anyone to find a more consistent team in the country than our team," Carlin-Voigt said. "Everyone is playing hard for the program, and for the guy next to him."
Portland's 50 goals are the fourth most nationally this season. The Pilots also rank fourth with their average of 2.63 goals per match. And the UP's plus-32 goal differential is tied for third best in all of Division I.
Western Michigan (16-2-2) is second in goal differential at plus-34 and has given up the fewest goals per game in the country, with opponents scoring only nine times through 20 games. The Broncos advanced this far by winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament, then beating Louisville and No. 9 seed Lipscomb, all on the road.
Carlin-Voigt said Western Michigan is similar to the Central Arkansas team Portland tied with 2-2 at home on Aug. 26 in the season opener. The Broncos are a physical team that plays a direct style. Western Michigan has five forwards 6-foot-3 or taller, led by 6-5 senior Charlie Sharp (11 goals, eight assists).
"They try to get under your skin and disrupt their opponent," Carlin-Voigt said. "But they have skilled players, too."
Three months ago against Central Arkansas, it took the Pilots some time to find their game, keep the ball on the ground and not get caught up in the opponent's physical approach. It took two goals after the 70th minute on that day to rally for a 2-2 draw.
Portland has blanked nine of 19 opponents and allowed 18 goals through 19 games. The Pilots have plenty of experience, including up the "spine" of the team with goalkeeper George Tasouris in his fifth college season, veteran starters across the backline, fifth-year Pilot midfielders Jake Arteaga and Greg Tracey and a fifth-year collegian in attacker Sangha.
The Pilots are clear about their roles and tactics Carlin-Voigt said, but also adaptable. And the depth on the roster is as good as Carlin-Voigt has had in his seven seasons at Portland. Season-ending injuries to several players, including defenders Jose Olmos and Jaylen Rodwell, did not derail the season.
One of the examples of the versatility and team-first nature of this team is Arteaga. The tempo-setter in deep midfield for most of his first four years at Portland, Arteaga has played centerback when the Pilots use a four-man backline because injuries impacted the depth at that position.
Arteaga said playing next to fourth-year junior Delentz Pierre in the middle of the defense is easy, in part because —though they've only become partners on the field this season — they are good friends.
"(Pierre) commands the backline well, so I just kind of play off him and he makes everyone's job a little easier because of his assertiveness and his leadership," Arteaga said.
The Pilots' attack often starts from the back. They like to keep the ball and advance it with passing combination play, a style possible because there are players in every position who are comfortable in possession.
Babalai, a junior from West Linn who grew up cheering for the Pilots, had the thrill of scoring the go-ahead goal in the emotional second-round win at Oregon State. He expressed confidence this team can accomplish more than just being the last team from the Pacific Northwest standing in the NCAA Tournament. "Honestly, everyone is friends with each other and we all know that we'll work for each other and we're willing to do anything for each other on the field," Babalai said.
Muslim Umar, who came off the bench to play a key defensive role and score the second goal in last Sunday's win at Oregon State, echoed that sentiment.
"I feel like we're just a great family, and that translates into the game," Umar said.
Arteaga said the brotherhood among the players has provided a foundation for the program over his five seasons, and that this season's team has embraced the "We before me" motto.
"It's not an individual sport. It's a team sport. It's not just 11 guys or 30 guys. It's a whole team, top to bottom," Arteaga said. "Even redshirts or guys who are injured, they're all bringing energy. It's a special team, for sure."
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