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Spring Update: defensive identity a focus for squad with championship aspirations

By Jacob Knabel on May. 16, 2024 in Men's Soccer

One of the NAIA’s most stifling defensive sides in 2023, Concordia University Men’s Soccer made it a priority this spring to be even better in that facet of its game. The Bulldogs have begun to shape their identity for this fall while putting behind a disappointing finish to the ’23 campaign. The cupboard is well-stocked as six All-GPAC award winners return and all four veterans who were celebrated this past senior day will be back for one more season of eligibility.

In a spring structured similarly to recent seasons, Weides had no trouble getting his team to buy into what’s been a tried and true approach. The spring semester is about mastering the basics.

“We were very focused on getting better at one thing this spring – the defensive side,” Weides said. “That may be odd considering we had a very good defensive year. In all defensive characteristics, we were near the top of the NAIA, but we felt like there was a great opportunity for us to grow and improve. Let’s get great at this one thing. That’s a clear identity for us. We spent a lot of time this spring breaking down the details of the defensive side of the ball. I think we’re lightyears ahead of where we’ve been in the past in terms of our preparation and readiness with current players for the fall season. I’m really excited about that. I think we’ll be able to adapt faster and understand what we’re looking for faster this fall.”

During this past spring semester, the Bulldogs went up against four opponents on three separate game days. They also played a group of alumni as part of an annual tradition. There were roughly 24 available players throughout the spring season. For the first time since the 2018 season, Concordia will no longer feature Lincoln Southwest High School alums Matt Schultz and Isaiah Shaddick, who completed their five-year careers in 2023. Victor Meneses is another veteran who exhausted his eligibility.

As usual, Weides and his program placed a premium on individual improvements that will make a collective difference once August rolls around. There were some results that slipped away from the Bulldogs this spring, but that isn’t what’s most important this time of year. The goal was for Concordia to be challenged and for a variety of players to be put in positions they may not have otherwise experienced. By semester’s end, Weides saw a group beginning to round into form.

“We put together a really challenging spring,” Weides said. “You’d rather be challenged than just go through the motions. Where we want to go, we’re going to be challenged. I think it was really good from that perspective. The results in terms of wins and losses maybe weren’t exactly what we hoped for, but holistically, it was a very successful spring for us, and we finished strong. I think we got better throughout the spring.”

The All-GPAC returners include first-teamers Ferdi Hagen and Carter Hinman, second-teamers Nolan Fuelberth, Jarrod Henson and Braden Spath and honorable mention selection Gabriel Mendoza. As Weides detailed, there were some established players who sat out all of the spring, or parts of it, while held back to ensure their health for the fall. The Gretna native Hinman was one of those who was sidelined. He enjoyed a breakout 2023 season (10 goals) and has the ability to again be one of the GPAC’s top strikers.

“The hope is he can be back, fully fit and ready to go,” Weides said. “When he is, he’s a huge impact to our team and such a great player. We definitely missed him this spring. He’s had opportunities in the past to stand out and grow and be one of our top goal scorers. Unfortunately, he missed out this spring, but he’ll be ready to go this fall. We know what he can do. He had an amazing, breakout year this past year. We’re excited about what he can add when he returns.”

There will be a definite veteran presence on this team. Hinman will be one of those leaders. So too will be the fifth-year competitors: Iker Casanova, Michael Lindberg, Spath and Michael Wokutch. This will be the final season that NAIA men’s soccer will be impacted by such super seniors that are taking advantage of a ‘COVID year.’ The return of four seniors gave Concordia considerable depth this spring, even as the program awaits the arrival of another class of freshmen.

“We’re excited to get all four of our seniors back, which is a huge lift to us,” Weides said. “Ultimately, part of the recruiting process is us bringing in new players and bringing back the guys who have the option to come back for a fifth year. I’m excited to have all four of them back. We return a really good nucleus of a team and we’ve added some good pieces to it as well. We added Aidan Nachi (Lincoln East) at semester. Aiden was one of the top players in Nebraska in high school and club. He’s been doing well in strength training. We just continue to add to our depth and quality.”

There will be some tough decisions once again for Weides from a playing time standpoint. That dynamic is well-illustrated by the situation at goalkeeper. Not many programs have the luxury of returning two all-conference keepers as the Bulldogs so in the form of Fuelberth and Mendoza. Both enjoyed strong springs along with Jason Payne.

“We return two amazing goalkeepers in Gab and Nolan,” Weides said. “They’ve been battling hard this spring, and I’m excited to get our new goalkeeper coach in to be part of that. Our goalkeepers have improved a lot too. Jason Payne has taken huge strides from where he was this fall and looks like a completely different player. That goalkeeper group is looking pretty nice.”

After the program went 15-3-3 in 2022 and 13-1-4 in 2023, Concordia indicated this spring that it expects to remain a team of prominence on the GPAC and national levels. The Bulldogs went undefeated during the ’23 regular season and reached as high as No. 18 in the NAIA coaches’ poll. This time around, Concordia wants to make sure it finishes what it starts. A season of better fortune from a health standpoint would make a difference.

Said Weides, “There’s some unfinished business. We have this bad taste in our mouth. It was an amazing season when you step back and look at it, but it’s a team that felt like it didn’t accomplish what we set out to do. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The guys this offseason have been working really hard. You hear them talking about being so excited to get back out there. There’s no doubt that how our season finished has been a motivating factor for us this offseason and heading into the summer.”

To view the 2024 Concordia Men's Soccer Schedule, click HERE.