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New-look Bulldogs answer question marks with solid spring

By Jake Knabel on May. 8, 2016 in Men's Soccer

This is not the 2015 GPAC tournament championship team. The spring season for Concordia University men’s soccer made that point loud and clear. Says Jason Weides, who enters his ninth season as head coach in 2016, “(Winning the GPAC title) was a great accomplishment for the team, but we’re preparing for next year. Last year was last year.”

The Bulldogs navigated through a spring season of approximately six weeks without the services of the large 2015-16 senior class. Six seniors started the program’s 2015 national tournament opening-round game, the first in program history. Four-year stalwarts such as Justin Lawrie and Gideon Soenksen have played in every game since 2012.

Naturally, there’s an adjustment phase that follows. The group of 20 Bulldogs who saw action over five spring exhibition games provided a new look and energy. They set out to help ease some of the question marks that result from significant losses in terms of leadership and experience.

“We lost not just guys who played a lot of games, but there’s a lot of leadership that had formed within that senior group,” Weides said. “We have other capable leaders within our team, but part of the leadership over the last couple years has been deferred to that older group. Now that older group isn’t there. It wasn’t just simply figuring out things on the field with different components, but also figuring out our team in reorganizing our team and making sure our chemistry is strong moving forward.”

The 2016 edition will attempt to live up to the defensive prowess the 2015 group displayed as it made its run through the GPAC tournament without conceding a single goal. That means replacements in the back must be found. Returners such as Angel Alvarez and Aries Fung are candidates to make the switch after playing elsewhere this past fall. As part of spring tinkering, Weides also tried out winger Toby Down in the midfield.

Weides saw his team grow increasingly comfortable on the defensive half. He says his retooled group is talking and communicating in the back better than it ever has before. Weides identified his team’s defensive pressing as an area that has seen great improvement.

“Early in the spring we struggled defensively,” Weides said. “We just weren’t on the same page. We really became more organized and communicated defensively a lot better towards the end of the spring. In the last year-and-a-half we’ve really made a concerted effort to do that. We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor. The communication on the field is at a level we haven’t seen prior to this. That’s a huge positive.”

While many key components of Concordia’s stout defense are graduating seniors, it returns all three players who tied for the team goals scored lead with seven apiece in 2015. The Bulldogs also showcased more potential firepower this spring in the form of Marcelo Hernandez, a native of Quito, Ecuador. Hernandez will be eligible this fall after transferring to the Bulldogs.

Concordia has not featured a single, dynamic goal scorer since Nathan Douglas graduated in 2014. Hernandez has the ability to change that, but he’ll have to get up to speed after a full year away from organized soccer. His teammates will also have to learn how to set him up and play off of him.

One area that is less of a concern than this time a year ago is at the goalkeeper position. Edinburgh, Scotland, native Mark Horsburgh is the frontrunner for the role after his breakthrough performance in the GPAC tournament. In the conference semifinals he made 11 saves and then converted on the clinching penalty kick.

“That only helps his confidence,” Weides said. “He does seem very confident in the way he carries himself and the way he’s training. He also knows that he’s got to work really hard because he has guys really pushing him. Nick Varilek and Jack Bennett have also made good strides this spring. I think we’re going to have some good competition for that position.”

Competition will likely continue through fall training for a squad that will look to players such as Carlos Acosta, Down, Tyler Jensen (game-winning goal in GPAC championship), Micah Lehenbauer and Lewis Rathbone, among others, for leadership.

No matter the losses in recent seasons, Weides has made the program a consistent winner. The Bulldogs have won at least 10 games five-consecutive seasons and have appeared in the GPAC semifinals two-straight years. They’ll just have to do it in a little bit different fashion, with a few new faces in 2016.

“We had a great opportunity to work through some kinks this spring with the seniors gone,” Weides said. “Here’s our team and let’s move forward. Our seniors helped instill great work rates. You could see that paying off this spring.”