AKRON Recruit elite players from all around the world, incorporate them into the program, watch them move on to the next level. Lather, rinse and repeat.
It’s become the M.O. for the University of Akron men’s soccer team over the past decade, as the Zips have brought in top talent from Europe, Africa and elsewhere and made it to the NCAA tournament every year despite seeing many of those players leave early to go pro.
This year is no different, as UA produced the top pick in the Major League Soccer draft - Portuguese defender Joao Moutinho - and once again has an internationally diverse group that includes players from 11 countries as well as two new additions from Suburbanite-area schools. With so many new faces, veteran yeah coach Jared Embick knows it will take time to put the pieces in the right places on the pitch.
"You’ve just got to use preseason as a way to really look at things and give players a chance to show where they’re at," Embick said in the wake of a 1-1 tie with Denver in Akron’s exhibition home opener. "You can sit here and play these (exhibition) games and try to get results and the results are important, but with so many new players, what’s important is the coaching staff and players getting a feel for what everyone brings to the table and how we can make adjustments."
With all of the new faces, the early season may be defined in large part by a returning player who is the backbone of what projects to be a solid UA defense.
Senior goalkeeper Ben Lundt (Berlin, Germany) is back between the pipes for the Zips and will have to remain steady as the new-look formation in front of him works its way toward stability.
"Hopefully for him, he’s a settling factor for us," Embick said. "As long as he can continue to show confidence and leadership, we can settle in with whoever we put in front of him and it will buy us some time to do that."
What should help in the process of finding a new lineup is the level of experience the team’s incoming freshmen have in big matches. Most have played for club or travel teams that have participated in high-level tournaments. Embick noted that such experience allows players to understand what is required of them in pressure situations and to continue playing at a high level when those moments come.
Former Jackson standout Colin Biros is one such player, having logged major minutes for the Columbus Crew’s youth team at its soccer academy.
Biros earned a starting spot in the Denver contest, a sign of the good impression he’s made thus far as well as the number of openings in the starting 11 after last year’s graduation losses and defections to the pro ranks. In the second half against Denver, Biros found himself with a good look on goal about 12 yards out, but drove the ball over the crossbar. Embick expressed confidence that the former All-Federal League selection will find the back of the net should he get another such chance in the future.
"We’ve seen some skill and ability to play under pressure. Obviously, what we’re hoping for is for him to continue to grow and progress in confidence and to know where we can move him around the field," Embick said. "I think sometimes your first chance in college, you put a lot more pressure on it than there needs to be. He’s a strong competitor, so I expected he’ll put more of those away."
One of Biros’ Federal League rivals, former Green standout Nick McCausland, also saw time as a reserve late in the Denver game and while earning playing time during the season will be a difficult task, McCausland proved during his Green career that he is a strong defensive presence.
Regardless of how the lineup shakes out and how offensive threats such as junior midfielder Skye Harter (Copley), forward David Egbo (Nigeria) and Marco Micaletto (Italy) gel up front.
"The biggest issue is just finding the chemistry in our build-up plays. You can see we’re a little choppy right now and there were some inaccurate passes … is that because the lineup is wrong, is it because guys aren’t in form … I don’t know, but it’s finding the right balance and chemistry in the lineup," Embick said. "Our trick is how to we continue to get results, how do we grind out wins while we’re figuring this out. Can guys psychologically keep their heads in a good spot as we may continue to tinker with things … at the end of the day, I’m looking for consistency and competitiveness."
The schedule, as usual, is loaded with top-25 opponents and difficult road games. The Zips, ranked fourth in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, will begin the year with a target on their backs after yet another College Cup appearance last season and in short order will have to figure out who they are and how to win if they hope to replicate that success this season.
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