Men’s soccer seeks better year

By Tom Loftus

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Soccer is all about taking things in stride… about not getting too pumped up over one picture-perfect goal or too low over one ugly defensive lapse… about taking the bitter with the sweet.

Last fall, despite being very competitive and feeling good about its unusually strong camaraderie and spirit of teamwork, Western’s men’s soccer team endured an up-and-down campaign that ultimately left a bittersweet residue.

Leathernecks coach Eric Johnson hopes things will flip around this fall – at least from a numbers standpoint.

“It was a difficult year because of a few factors,” said Johnson, whose team finished a frustrating 4-8-6 last season and just missed qualifying for the Summit League tournament. “One, we struggled to score goals; two, we had some injuries to key players that inhibited us from scoring those goals.”

Of Western’s eight losses last year, six were by only one goal.

“We were probably a play away from having a winning record in those games that we lost or tied,” Johnson said. “But that’s soccer; that’s the brutal part of our sport. One play can lead to a goal, or one lack of making a play can mean a goal for the other team.

“Kind of a frustrating year in terms of results, but kind of a rewarding year in terms of the effort and the quality of play and the competitive spirit of our team.”

The Leathernecks also struggled at times to dent the net. In 14 of Western’s 18 games, the team was either shut out, or held to only one goal.

“Kind of a bittersweet season, where things were good because we were such a good team chemistry-wise, and competitive, but a little bit sour because we didn’t get the results we thought we deserved sometimes,” Johnson said.

“When you’re scoring, and things are going good, people expect to score. And when you’re not scoring, people expect not to score. So that’s a little bit of the mentality of how it goes.

“It’s hard to overcome the fact that you’re not scoring,” the Western coach continued. “If you give up one early, you’ve got to battle back to just tie it. That becomes difficult. So hopefully we can turn that around this year, and not be in the same situation. We make those plays early, and get that confidence, and just expect to score, and expect to shut people down – that’s our goal, and hopefully that’s what happens.”

Although Western does return four all-conference players, led by starting goalkeeper Andy Ryan (1.23 goals-against average, four shutouts), the team will also feel the loss of a quintet of talented players who have now graduated: forward Darryl Odom, midfielders Cosmo Patano, Jonathan Sandoval and Jaime Castrejon, and midfielder/defender Adam Rappin.

“Patano and Sandoval are probably two of the most competitive guys that we’ve ever had,” Johnson said. “In terms of on game day, their spirit, their ability to be intense and fire people up and lead by example, I don’t think we can replace that. Hopefully some other guys will step up in that role.”

This fall, Ryan and center back Kooten Johnson are the team co-captains, and Johnson is very pleased with what he has seen thus far this preseason.

“They’re providing leadership right now, and they’re both very intense individuals,” Johnson said. “I’m really pleased with the way they’re leading the team.”

Johnson added that midfielder/defender Charlie Bales – who, along with Ryan, Jonnson and midfielder Mariano Leo (currently recovering from an injury) were named to the All-Summit League team last fall – has been most impressive during practices.

“Charlie Bales has looked very good in training,” Johnson said. “He has an opportunity to be one of the best guys in the league again. And as soon as Mariano is 100 percent again, he’ll be one of the top guys in the league, too.”

Western opens its 2011 season with a pair of home exhibition games: against Graceland University on Saturday, and against Quincy University on Monday. Both games begin at 5 p.m. at John Mackenzie Alumni Field, located directly east of Brophy Hall.

The Leathernecks’ first game that “counts” will be a week from Saturday, Aug. 27, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Western opens its home regular season on Monday, Aug. 28 by hosting Drake University at 5 p.m.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Western had been picked to finish third in the Summit League this season in a poll of league coaches, behind defending regular-season league champion Missouri-Kansas City, and defending Summit League tournament champion Oakland University.

“We’ve changed the way we play a little bit, and I think that’s going to help,” said Johnson, who – with 159 career wins – is just two victories away from becoming the all-time Summit League coaching leader. “We have (sophomore midfielder) Husref (Jupic) back, that’s going to help; (junior midfielder) Alexis Dominguez looks really good; (and midfielder) Danny Lewis, another senior, looks really good.”

If what Johnson is seeing so far in practice is any indication, the Leathernecks just might surpass the expectations of the consensus of Summit League coaches, and finish up on a sweeter note than they did in 2010.

“Right now, they’ve done very well in training,” Johnson said. “They’re fit, they’re sharp, and I can just see in their intensity that they’re really focused, and want to have a great season.”


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