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2017 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview
2017 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview
Christopher Rieman
Published by Chris R
08-22-2017
Smile 2017 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview

The Dayton Flyers are looking to bounce back from a rebuilding season last fall after finishing 8-9-3 (3-3-2) and making it to the A10 Tournament semifinals. Dayton upset St. Louis 2-1 in the conference tourney to salvage something positive, but a slow start to open the year (2-5-1) forced UD to work from behind and make up a ton of ground. To their credit, the Flyers were more competitive at the end of the season (3-1-1) and doing it with many new faces in the program that grew more comfortable as they gained valuable experience. Still, the overall level of play was a season-long challenge against a schedule not particularly challenging to begin with. After winning the A10 Championship a season prior, perhaps last year was a building year. That said, 2017 poses many of the same concerns and there’s no denying an underlying pressure within the program to achieve sustained excellence against schedules that don’t act as low-brow filler until the conference tournament.

That may be easier said and done as roster turnover continues to pose its own unique set of challenges. The large international flavor also introduces complexities so in some ways the 2017 season is not unlike most seasons of the past. For better or worse, it’s been the face of the program for more than a decade.

DEARLY DEPARTED

Some of those faces have chosen to move on, including two of UD’s three leading scorers from last season. Sophomore Kennedy Nwabia (6g, 1a – transferred to Virginia) and Alvaro Navarro (4g) were a pair of internationals with remaining eligibility, but their premature departures alongside freshman Bennett Lehner (2g – transferred to Grand Canyon) and graduations of Michael Frasca (2g, 2a) and MLS 1sd Rd draft pick Lalas Abubakar (1g) leave just two players on the 2017 roster that found the back of the net in 2016 (7 total goals). Nwabia was a 1st Team All-A10 member so his defection on a team lacking depth and proven goal scorers just adds to the challenge of bouncing back as an A10 contender.

One bit of good news is the return of sophomore Rok Taneski (4g, 6a), a fast-twitch forward from Slovenia that possesses an excellent work ethic and is crafty enough to make plays in traffic. His 14pts were tied for team best with Nwabia but he’ll need to be a double-digit scorer this year to give the Flyers an honest chance.

Scoring was a major problem last year (23 goals in 20 games). When the Flyers found themselves playing from behind, they rarely had enough firepower to overcome the deficit – unusual for a program annually ranked as one of the top scoring teams in the country. Dayton’s defense was respectable however (just 22 goals surrendered) and for a stretch of 11 matches Dayton held opponents to one goal or less. Abubakar had a lot to do with that however. He was the league’s top defender – both in space and one vs. one. The Columbus Crew SC picked him #5 overall in the MLS draft (highest ever for a UD player). Abubakar covered his own mistakes and those of his teammates, oftentimes multiple defensive gaffs snuffed out on the same play. He had game-changing/game-saving ability and commanded respect from other teams that tried to keep the ball away from his area of the field.

Midfielder Rafael Gamboa (San Jose, Costa Rica) was an off/on starter for four seasons while Frasca could play wide or up top. Tommy Harr graduated as well. Harr brought speed to the pitch and did his best work as a wide attacking player near the corner flags.

I’LL BE BACK

The best offseason news was the improving health of RS-senior James Haupt, an all-conference talent sidelined a year ago. The imposing midfielder/forward plays with a plow horse mentality and combines excellent foot skills with a physical frame to present a challenge for opposing defenders. He gives UD a presence up top like Nwabia, only in a slightly different style. His return to the field helps Dayton.

Fellow senior Nick Hagenkord (2g) is the other returning scorer from last year and has slowly but confidently developed his skills over three seasons in a Flyer uniform. He took a redshirt season as a frosh and has two years of eligibility if he chooses to use it. Hagenkord does the little things on the field that casual soccer fans might overlook and too often doesn’t get enough credit for those efforts. He needs help in the midfield and hopefully his good habits rub off on others. Dayton also needs scoring and Hagenkord – like Taneski and Haupt – must find the back of the net.

Daniel Dos Santos (Gland, Switzerland) played almost 1,900 minutes as a freshman and should take a significant step forward as a sophomore midfielder. Playing alongside Haupt for the first time should also accelerate his play, but like the others must also become a reliable goal scorer or set-up artist that opposing teams fear.

Despite the loss of Abubakar on defense, keeping the score down may still be UD’s strength heading into the season. Sophomore GK Frederic Barrios came into the program as a first-year player and took the starting job away from senior Justin Saliba. That wasn’t easy considering Saliba has considerable starting experience and was big-time in the NCAA PK-shootout victory over Butler in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Regardless of who wins the starting job, UD has two solid options inside the goal box and it’s not out of bounds to assume the Flyer coaching staff will roll with the hot hand in any given week. Redshirt junior Anthony Flowers has yet to see action in a regular season game but started the preseason match against Milwaukee. Oliver Hansen, another talented GK with starts under his belt, had a year of eligibility but departed the program in the offseason.

IN THE REAR WITH THE GEAR

In the back line, transfer Coletun Long and Ben Emery graduated. Both were solid players that played well with Abubakar. To lose all three and suggest UD’s strength remains on defense might seem a stretch but the Flyers have some good depth and we think there are players ready to step up.

Sophomore David Lianes (Madrid, Spain) started 19 matches as a first-year player and has a chance to be one of the better defenders in the A10. He learned a lot last year and Abubakar was a great mentor. Senior Michael Brezovsky (Plano, TX) saw action in 16 games last year and has several starts under his belt over the last two seasons. At 6-3, he gives UD good size and high-ball winning ability in the defensive third. Likewise, senior Dillon Nino (Fresno, CA) started 18 games in 2016 and is one of the most experienced Flyers on the roster with 48 career starts. He’s also one of the most consistent players. The less you notice him, the better he’s playing because Nino is neutralizing his part of the field.

Fellow senior Lance Gaspar has seen limited action in his first three seasons but started the final exhibition game against Milwaukee.

INFLUX REDUX

A bunch of newcomers arrived on campus, some stateside and some international, to help the Flyers rebound from last season and climb back to the top of the A10 standings. The US-based players hail from Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The fresh internationals (once again) come from all over the globe: Iceland, UK, Norway, Spain, Ghana, and Panama. Evan Collins (Univ. South Carolina –DNP) and Dennis Kluba (Belmont University – 17 starts) are college transfers. Lots of players with ambitions of seeing the field, and they might get it too. Including Haupt, seven starters in the preseason match against Milwaukee did not play for Dayton in 2016. That includes GK Anthony Flowers.

With so much personnel turnover, so many new faces, and zero home preseason exhibitions to make proper evaluations, it’s impossible to say who may or may not contribute or even what combinations could work best for the Flyers. The coaching staff may take the carrot-and-stick approach and dangle playing time to those competitors most willing to demonstrate high work rates in practice and in games.

SQUEEZE THE CHARMIN

We’ve lamented UD’s soft schedules in the past and this year is no different. It’s a three-game season and that means Dayton’s only realistic chance of reaching the NCAA tournament is through the automatic bid of winning the postseason A10 Tournament. The regular season schedule is riddled with too many cupcakes and not enough meat on the bone to satisfy even the weakest of appetites by members of the NCAA at-large selection committee. Dayton’s scheduling model is routinely one of the weakest in the entire country and forces the Flyers to practically run the table to be seriously considered. That actually happened once – and we weren’t considered.

Dayton opens the season on 8/25 at home against East Tennessee State – perhaps UD’s best non-conference opponent of the season. ETSU finished #33 in the RPI last season. UD plays at Fort Wayne two days later for their first roadie, return to Baujan Field on 9/1 against Western Illinois, then return a home/home series match with Belmont in Nashville, TN, on 9/3.

The Flyers host their own in-season tournament on 9/8 and 9/10 against Central Arkansas and Liberty, followed by away matches at Northern Kentucky and Western Michigan the following week. Oakland visits on 9/20 followed by a road game at West Virginia on 9/23 to round out the non-con schedule.

Overall, the non-con slate consists of just two teams ranked inside the RPI Top-100 (roughly Top-50% of D-I teams). The average RPI of the opponents is #141 out of 206 and seven foes are below #150 in the RPI. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to imagine fans and players getting excited about this kind of non-con schedule. A case can be made that UD has question marks and deserves a few fighting chances, but players want to be challenged and fans want to attend matches that move the needle.

The A10 schedule commences on 9/30 at Davidson, followed by: St. Joseph’s (PA) on 10/4, @GW on 10/7, St. Bonaventure on 10/14, @Saint Louis on 10/18, UMass on 10/21, @Duquesne on 10/28, and home for the season finale against George Mason on 11/1.

The best news about the schedule? Dayton hosts the A10 Tournament at the friendly confines of Baujan Field. The top eight seeds receive a league invitation to compete for the automatic NCAA bid.

EMERGING THOUGHTS

The Flyers lost the most talented player at any position in the conference (Abubakar), succumbed to a few important departures unrelated to exhausting athletic eligibility, and graduated a couple others that were among the most consistent players on an otherwise inconsistent team from last season. The incoming class is also large and largely unproven, but in all likelihood several will be asked to contribute early and often to Dayton’s success. How well they can adjust to new surroundings, a new coaching style, and in some cases a new country will determine how quickly those contributions are realized.

Just getting James Haupt back on the field is a huge shot in the arm for Head Coach Dennis Currier. Haupt is the unofficial face of the program and others feed off his style of play. But he must remain healthy and he can’t do it alone. Dayton suffered prolonged scoring droughts last year – mind you against competition that wasn’t exactly UCLA, North Carolina, and Akron. If the Flyers can’t score they can’t win – no matter how good the defense is. While the back line will look different than a year ago – and no one can replace Abubakar – we think UD can keep the score down just enough to grind out some victories – provided the offense is opportunistic and doesn’t waste precious scoring chances. If UD has to outscore teams to win, the music stops.

None of this might makes sense when digesting the 5-0 beat-down Dayton was taking early in the second half against Milwaukee in the preseason exhibition. That said, Dayton scored three times in the last 20 minutes to make it respectable and out-shot the Panthers 15-8 in the second half. We think – or hope – the loose defense was an aberration. This is a team with a thin margin for error. If UD plays to their potential they can earn some victories, but if they ride a roller coaster all season they could lose to most teams on the schedule. There’s just no telling what might happen in light of the offseason changes, but winning ultimately comes down to personnel and continuity. It always has.

IN THE OUT DOOR

We’ve made our feelings clear about those hurdles. Roster turnover continues to strait-jacket the program. A lack of continuity, togetherness, growth, relationships, and shared long-term goals have – for reasons those of us on the outside are not privy to – created a turnstile where too many players arrive at UD but quickly find out their futures belong elsewhere. Of the 16 underclassmen on the 2015 roster, just seven made it to their junior or senior year in a Flyer uniform. The reasons for leaving are almost unimportant because the turnover cycle is an annual occurrence and suggests a larger issue. Starters and non-starters alike have come and gone without ever seeing a Senior Day. Sports teams are close families and teammates are tight-knit – at least they want to be. It’s difficult to build that trust and work toward common goals of sustained excellence when UD feels like a stopover rather than a destination. Piling on cultural barriers, language and communication hurdles, customs, academic expectations, and being 5,000 miles from home presents real challenge for both players and coaches. In short, you’re asking a lot from a lot of people – many of them young adults. It’s not about placing blame. We’re just examining the cause-and-effect.

It also presents real opportunities for gifted players capable of handling the overhead. UD has its own share of success stories, but that doesn’t obfuscate the hardships of the success stories when assembling such a team, rather than choosing more traditional paths to recruiting and player development. If something works, don’t fix it. But is it working?

NITTY GRITTY

After a decade, we think that’s a question worth asking and in need of an answer. The A10 is competitive every year, but it’s not one of the conference powerhouses of NCAA soccer. The facilities and investments are there to make UD a nationally-competitive program that makes the NCAA tournament about as often as it misses the postseason. But that hasn’t happened. Wins and losses are good, but they do not measure up to A10 titles and NCAA bids. Sure, the men’s NCAA tournament is only 48 teams and there are built-in advantages to Power-5 money trains of endless wealth and national exposure. Dayton doesn’t need to be UCLA, but it does need to be competitive with UCLA and capable of beating UCLA on any given night. With far more parity in the men’s game, this should be a reachable goal and many non-Power-5 programs have managed to reach that end. The Flyers seem to be a season-to-season program in a habitual cycle of tear-down and reconstruction. Were the approach working, there’d be no point in suggesting a fix. It’s become apparent however that it’s no longer sustainable – if it ever was to begin with.

The Flyers always play hard – effort is rarely questioned by us or anyone else. That’s been one of the most re-assuring things every year that doesn’t come and go. There are question marks in 2017 that need answers and quite frankly we don’t have all of them, but we know nothing will be a slam dunk and everything will be a work in progress. This year’s team, like last year’s team, will be better at the end of the season. We just don’t know where the starting line is. We do know some of the starting lines of other programs – especially in the A10 – and many of those appear clearer and more comforting.

It really doesn’t matter what happens between now and November because the regular season is a dry-run launching pad for the A10 Tournament. It appears 2017 looks a lot like 2016 from 30,000ft: a mixed bag. The Flyers aren’t going to scare anyone with preseason press clippings; they’ll need to prove themselves on the field and – in all likelihood – overachieve to reach their goals.

Until then, it’s wait-and-see. In Currier’s favor is his bounce-back ability after a tough year. He’s managed to avoid the extended valleys of mediocrity over his tenure and that’s not easy to do. But the extended peaks of success respected by those in the national soccer community have been few and far between. That’s the problem. If we’re where we want to be as a program, there’s nothing to fix. If we’re not, how much longer can it take? Something has to give.

A10 Prediction: 8th Place
A10 Tournament: Quarterfinals
NCAA Postseason: None
__________________

C. M. Rieman | Publisher | 937.361.4630 | Get the latest here:

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