Even head coach Jason Weides would have had a difficult time forecasting this start. It’s not that the solid 3-1-1 record produced by the Concordia University men’s soccer team is particularly shocking, it’s how it’s gotten there.
The 2015 Bulldogs rose to the status of GPAC tournament champions by rattling off three-straight postseason wins without allowing a single goal. They did so while employing a backline made up entirely of seniors. Those steady defenders, including all-conference performers Mark Campbell and Justin Lawrie, have graduated and moved on. Then more hits came immediately prior to the start of this school year when Weides learned that two potentially impactful defensive recruits would not be arriving on campus as expected.
“Honestly, I thought this would be a team that would need to win games 3-2,” Weides said. “I thought we would concede a few more goals early in the season until we really sorted out our pressing as a unit. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”
The results are more than just a pleasant surprise. Preposterously, Concordia is currently one of just three teams in the nation that has played five or more games with just a single goal allowed. It’s an especially impressive accomplishment considering the moving parts. It’s not as if the Bulldogs immediately settled on four defenders and let them go play.
Junior Toby Down went from a winger to playing mostly as an outside back this season. Weides has also used the likes of Angel Alvarez, Derek Eitzmann, Aries Fung, Andrew Mussell and transfers Luke Batters and Florian Caraballo along the backline at various times.
Down didn’t necessarily want to be a defender, something he’d never done in his life – except for a couple of rare instances last season. He tied a team high with seven goals in 2015.
“I came in expecting to be back at winger. They said we want to try you at left back,” Down said. “I said, ‘OK.’ Two days later I played left back and I wasn’t too happy with it at first. Coach was right. I wasn’t unhappy about playing it, I was unhappy because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Down, known to be outspoken, personable and witty, has quickly grown into the position and has the potential to be an all-conference player at that spot, according to Weides. Down’s first experience as a defender in 2015 went well, but the native of Hong Kong joked with his coach, “It was probably a fluke.” Not true. His positional shift along with the infusion of Batters and Caraballo has provided a noticeable shot in the arm.
Batters came to Concordia by way of Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, Minn. Batters was not immediately aware of the holes that existed in the backline. Unlike Down, Batters had been groomed as a defender since five years of age. It soon became obvious that his services would be welcome.
“We were a bit worried about defense. I was like, ‘I’m going to have to step up a bit,’” Batters said. “As soon as we got in the first game it was like practice. I could see that we had developed a bond and the communication was there. It’s not just the defense that is doing a good job. It’s all the way from the forwards that are getting back to defend to the midfielders helping out as well. It’s a good team effort.”
Like Batters, Caraballo came in ready to contribute. The native of Cordoba, Spain, attended Marshalltown Community College where he played on a national runner-up team in 2015. It’s just another illustration of the talent on hand.
The big question was how quickly that talent, which comes from many different nations, could mesh. They’re still working towards developing the same type of chemistry that made last year’s late-season run possible.
“I would argue that this might be the most technical backline that we’ve had,” Weides said. “But last year’s backline played with each other so much. They were so familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each other. They were able to communicate really effectively with each other. There were very few mistakes made, because they were on the same page. Right now we still have to sort some of those things out.”
While it may take more time to develop a backline that consistently operates on the same wavelength, it’s difficult to argue with the results. The skills of one another have complimented each other in most obvious ways. And the chemistry? It’s progressed rapidly for a team with so many new faces and so many different cultural backgrounds.
“It’s just come together very well,” Down said. “We work off each other very well. The things that I’m not good at, Luke’s good at. The things that Luke’s not good at, Aries is good at. The thing Aries is not good at, Florian’s good at. Derek (Eitzmann) came in on Saturday and did an absolutely brilliant job. That’s what people are doing. Even if they’re getting short minutes, they’re coming on and doing the job.”
The dynamics in the locker room have changed as well without the one-of-kind Campbell. The 2016 team has forged a new identity. It’s still a playful team that shows up to volleyball matches and brings with it some of its soccer chants and cheers. Down says Dan Stephens “keeps the mood very light” and “acts like a little child” – but in a good way. Plus there’s always a flavorful mix of music playing in the locker room.
There are unique characters up and down the roster, but somehow it all works.
“I liked the way there were a lot of players from different countries,” Batters said. “We’ve got a kid from Ecuador, a lot of British lads, some people from Hong Kong and all around the world.
“In the backline we’re all great defenders and friends. We communicate a lot. We’ve spent every day with each other since preseason, so we’ve gotten to know each other from day one. We know each other’s strengths. We know each other’s weaknesses.”
While the backline deservedly grabs attention for stifling opposing attacks, it’s worth mentioning goalkeeper Mark Horsburgh, a hero from the 2015 GPAC tournament who made two highlight-worthy saves as part of last week’s double overtime draw with Lyon College. Up top, transfer Marcelo Hernandez brings an obvious flair and goal-scoring potential.
Down and company possess confidence that the pieces are in place to make this a more consistent start-to-finish season than a year ago.
“Our regular season was something that pushed us in the playoffs (last year),” Down said. “We were so upset with how our regular season ended that we were like, ‘All right, we’ve got to go and do this.’ This year coming in, we can’t wait for the playoffs. We want to go and smash it.”
One goal allowed in five games. That’s smashing it.