There’s a spotlight on University of Portland soccer; A spotlight that seems to grow larger each game. That light is even brighter than the purple glow sticks that students and fans wave in the air at Merlo Field.
But it’s not for the two-time national champion women’s program, the traditional powerhouse on The Bluff. It’s for a rejuvenated men’s side.
The men’s soccer program has turned the other cheek to the disappointment and lackluster performance that has defined their recent past. First-year head coach Nick Carlin-Voigt is leading the fast charge out of that dark tunnel back into the open, making comparisons to the Clive Charles era premature, but plausible.
The Pilots were picked to finish sixth in the West Coast Conference before the season started. They have shattered preseason expectations, currently sitting atop the WCC with 15 points, five ahead of second-place Pacific. Their seven-game winning streak is the team’s best mark since 1995. On top of that, they’re undefeated through five conference games, a feat unmatched since 1988, when they reached the NCAA Final Four. And they’re right on the brim of another tournament appearance.
They can clinch the WCC title with a win or draw against Pacific on Sunday. This would mean a ticket to the College Playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“We have an underdog mentality in every game that we go into,” Voigt said. “No one in the conference, really no one on campus, expected much from this team.”
A culture shift has come by way of the new coaches on the sideline and the 17th ranked recruiting class in country.
But it’s the seniors – the players who’ve been around for three losing seasons – who have driven change in the program.
They’ve helped Voigt establish a new culture since he was hired in January. The seniors and captains have a weekly leadership meeting with Voigt where they discuss how the team can continue to grow as a unit.
Freshman striker Benji Michel has benefitted from the presence of his more experienced teammates. He struggled to find a rhythm early in the season. Noticing that Michel was struggling with something he’d dealt with in the past, senior midfielder Eddie Sanchez sat him down privately. Sanchez told him to just smile, have fun and play his game.
Michel heeded his simple advice.
After going scoreless his first five collegiate games, Michel now leads the WCC in goals scored at 10. That mark is also good for 18th best in the NCAA.
He has performed back flips after a pair of goals he’s netted on Merlo Field.
“We see that today [Benji] is always smiling in trainings, joking around and that’s the type of atmosphere we like to be around,” Sanchez said.
But don’t let the smiles and celebrations fool you. This team is hungry to put Portland men’s soccer back on the map. They don’t pat themselves on the back. Players are pulled from the starting lineup if they get too comfortable. The fight for minutes has established a standard of accountability that has been absent from the team the last few years.
Portland has no hardware to show for their upstart season yet. So more work still needs to be done.
“We play [each game] like it’s a World Cup final,” Michel said.
The Pilots non-conference matchup with No. 6 Denver on Thursday night will show fans just how good they are. The Pioneers, one of the two remaining unbeaten teams in the country, are the caliber of competition Portland would face in the NCAA tournament .
But one thing is for sure: the team is already light years ahead of the last seasons. Portland had seven wins in 2014 and 2015 combined. They have 11 and counting in 2016.
So let those glow sticks on Merlo continue to shine. Portland men’s soccer can see the light once again.