The University of Portland women’s soccer team is back on The Bluff and ready to continue its steady comeback to program success. This is the team’s second year under the leadership of heach coach Michelle French, a Portland alumna herself.
With her steering the ship, the Pilots have already found success on the field and are picked to finish fourth in the conference for the 2019-20 season.
“I think it shows that this program is respected,” French said. “I think that we’ve done a good job as a team putting Portland back in the conversation, being a team that isn’t a guaranteed win.”
French took on the team after a poor 2017 campaign, which finished with a 5-13-1 overall record. With French’s new ideas and positive attitude, the Pilots were able to turn things around in the 2018 season, finishing with an overall record of 11-9.
“Everyone had to step it up,” senior midfielder Natalie Muth said. “Once Frenchie (French) came in it’s been higher level, I think more competitive, higher energy. And so that’s been good, to see that continue.”
French has changed the culture of women’s soccer at UP into one focused on unity and positivity, coming into each training with high energy, according to Muth. French has also changed the way Portland plays. She has worked to make the team more offensive-minded, making quicker transitions, while reinforcing strengths the team already had, like possession, and constructing a defense with “more feistiness,” said French.
Some players began to stand out under French’s coaching as she raised the level of competition — players like junior forward and midfielder Taryn Ries, who scored more goals last season by herself (15) than the team did all of the 2017 season (11) and was the only Pilot named to a WCC preseason team.
“We were really asking them to go from one end of the spectrum to the other in regards to the way they were playing,” French said. “Just trying to be a little bit more high-octane, more attacking-minded, getting at players a little bit more.”
This shift in play has made the Portland Pilots a part of the conversation. While this year Portland is picked to finish fourth, the team was picked to finish seventh last season. This is the highest placement prediction since 2012, when the Pilots were picked to finish second.
The Portland Pilots are looking to build off of the improvements and strides they’ve made with their returners, including 12 seniors. French has brought on 11 new players, including international students Selma Licina from Bremen, Germany and Amber Mutsaers from Oss, The Netherland. Other new players include transfers from Cal State Fullerton, Washington State University and Duke University.
“The new players are awesome,” Muth said. “Their attitude and everything has been awesome. They fit seamlessly into our group, so that’s been great. And on the field they’ve been contributing a ton, too, which is really great to see. So, we’re excited to have them.”
While the team is picked fourth, French along with the players believe getting to top three is a realistic goal for this season. Their “stretch” goal, as French put it, would be to make it to the postseason.
“Our hearts are set on it, and I think Frenchie’s gone a long way to help (with) that,” Muth said.
The Pilots look to their program’s past glory, when victories were common and defeat was scarce, for motivation. This summer, the big Portland names — Schmidt, Sinclair, Rapinoe — had great success at the top of their sport. While the Pilots certainly want to meet the standard set by these players during their time at UP, the current squad wants to do it their own way.
“Yeah, that’s the goal but I think it’s more of like let’s create our own path and get to where we want to be,” senior midfielder Larkin Russell said. “It’s just really inspiring for us to see how our program has been so great in the past and how it can continue to be great and put people in high places to do well.”
The players want to have similar success seen in the past, when the Pilots swept conference play, like in 2005 when the program went 23-0-2. But they also want to do it in their own way. While newcomers are elevating the level of play, the women’s team has several upperclassmen returners who are leading the team into the season.
“It’s just exciting that we’re being recognized,” Russell said. “We’re just putting Portland back on the map.”
The Pilots will kick off their season in Seattle against the University of Washington Huskies on Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m.
Ana Clyde is a senior sports reporter and copy editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.