The Concordia University Men’s Soccer program relished the spot it found itself in this spring, as opposed to where it stood a year earlier. Coming off a thrilling comeback in the 2022 GPAC tournament championship game, the Bulldogs embraced the challenge of following up arguably the greatest season in program history. Head Coach Jason Weides made it clear there’s no time to rest on last season’s laurels. The veteran coach began preparing its group to move on without three First Team All-GPAC honorees in Dominic Abdel-Ahad, Max Bisinger and Carlos Orquiz.
Those personnel losses will be felt, but Weides saw plenty of reason this spring to believe that Concordia will be a contender for a GPAC regular season championship in the fall. That carrot serves as motivation – and so too does the prospect of claiming the program’s first win on the national tournament stage.
“Last year at this time we were frustrated with the season we just had (in 2021),” Weides said. “We were looking ourselves in the mirror and trying to figure out where we went wrong. It will be different this upcoming year. One of our mantras is ‘go further.’ We want to go further than we did last year. It’s about reloading and setting high expectations. That’s going to be a challenge to do. We had a great season this past year, so it’s going to be a challenge to set the bar higher. I think our team is capable of that. The margin of error is small, but that’s the mindset right now. We don’t want to rest on what happened last year. We want to prove we’re a team that deserves to be there again and will work its tail off to make it happen. I think the guys did that this spring for sure.”
Weides says the Bulldogs tweaked their approach just a bit this spring while narrowing the focus on a couple of areas that could make all the difference this fall. It won’t hurt that three experienced players are returning to use their ‘COVID year’ of eligibility: Victor Meneses, Matt Schultz and Isaiah Shaddick. They did not want to miss out on another chance at winning a conference championship and a hopeful run to the national tournament. The spring seemed to indicate that those aspirations are legitimate and that 2022 wasn’t just a one-year wonder.
This past spring, Weides took his side up against the likes of Creighton University, Grand View University, Iowa Lakes Community College and Northeastern Junior College. The matchup with Creighton at Morrison Stadium provided the ultimate barometer for the Bulldogs. The Bluejays reached the NCAA Division I Final Four in 2022. Concordia came away from the scrimmage feeling satisfied with its competitive level.
“Our guys were very excited about the challenge of facing a renowned program like Creighton that just had an amazing season and made it to the Final Four of the College Cup,” Weides said. “They had a tremendous amount of success. Our guys are familiar with the program and some of our local guys had played at Morrison Stadium. It’s a fun place to play and they have great coaches and a great program. It was an honor to play against them. We wanted to focus on ourselves and learn from the competition. We cared most about competing really well, and our guys took that to heart.”
The aforementioned fifth-year players on the roster will be surrounded by plenty of other veterans, including 2022 all-conference performers in Martin Herrera (second team), Ryan Wokutch (second team) and Gabriel Mendoza (honorable mention). In other words, there’s a high degree of familiarity within the program, which has become known for developing players significantly over time. The next group of breakout stars is yet to be determined. Beyond that, Weides is curious to see how the leadership of this squad comes into focus.
Said Weides, “I’m excited to see which leaders emerge. We had some of that happen already this spring, but we graduated some really good leaders. Some of the most influential leaders on the team have moved on, so we need new guys to step into those roles. I’m also excited to get the opportunity to get to defend what we earned last year. We want to be a top team, and top teams are able to fend off the best of other teams. The teams we face next year know that we had a successful season, and we’re going to get the best of them. I’m excited to see how we stand up to that challenge.”
One storyline this spring was the addition of midfielder Okan Erkocu, a native of Kiel Germany. Concordia had hoped to have the services of Erkocu this past fall, but the wait will be worth it in the eyes of Weides. Erkocu will definitely be in the mix as a potential starter. He has the ability to play all over the pitch as a versatile athlete. The pipeline from Germany is becoming a boost for the program.
“He joined the team in January and his impact was immediate,” Weides said. “He played at a good level in Germany. He’s a little older too, so he’s got some experience. He’s not your average freshman. It’s like adding a transfer essentially. He brings that level of maturity and experience. He was a great leader for us right away. I think guys have responded to him well. He’s a player that would have helped this last fall. He’s a great addition for us. It was nice to see him get settled in this spring, so he’ll be prepared to take off this fall. He could probably play six different positions for us. We played him mostly as a center mid in the spring, but he’s got experience as a winger and as a striker.”
The ’22 team started four different goalkeepers because of its extreme depth at the position. The battle at that spot began this spring as Mendoza and Nolan Fuelberth shared duties in scrimmages. Mendoza started 11 games last season while Fuelberth got his feet wet after transferring from Northern Illinois University. Weides expects the quality of play at keeper to remain top notch. The program’s had a history of strong results at the position. Look no further than Federico Simonetti’s GPAC-title clinching PK save this past season.
Weides and company believe more thrilling moments lie in the future with a well-stocked roster for 2023. The ’23 Bulldogs began to take shape this spring. Concordia has the pieces to duplicate (or exceed) last season, but every year brings new dynamics. The proving ground will be in August through November (or further?).
“I think the spring answered some questions,” Weides said. “We graduated some really good players. Every program is going to graduate good players. We have guys who have developed really well and can take on much bigger roles. They took huge strides this spring – and we will bring in some guys who can compete with them. It will be tough to lose some guys. We lose our top goal scorer and our top assist guy, plus we lose an All-American center back. This past fall we were better on set plays, so we want to make sure we can be just as threatening and score goals in a variety of ways. We still have some questions like, who can take over for Dom and play that final pass? I’m positive we have the personnel that we’ll be able to answer those questions.”