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2018 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview
2018 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview
C.M. Rieman
Published by Chris R
08-21-2018
Smile 2018 UD Men's Soccer Season Preview

DAYTON (OH) -- Last season was a mixed bag for UD Menís Soccer. The Flyers started 3-5-2 during the non-conference portion of the schedule, then rebounded with a 6-2-0 record in the A10 regular season. But a 3-2 defeat to Fordham on home soil in the A10 Tourney Quarterfinals ended the year with additional disappointment. It was the third season in the last four years under Head Coach Dennis Currier that UD finished with a .500-ish record, sandwiching an A10 title/NCAA 2nd Rd appearance in 2015. In fact, five of the last eight seasons have been near .500 or well below, with the other three years producing just the opposite. When the Flyers are good, they are usually very good. But those campaigns have been less frequent in recent years and 2017 was a microcosm of the programís recent inconsistency.

Like most Currier teams, UD had few problems scoring last season, finishing with 2.05 goals per game. Conversely, UD was mediocre on defense, surrendering 1.32 GAA that turned most matches into shootouts. When Dayton found the net, the results were pretty good, but when the offense struggled to score the results were disappointing Ė the 2017 Flyers lost all four 1-0 matches they played and failed to score in two others. The goals came in bunches but the dry spells elsewhere and tendency to surrender soft goals on defense made the entire year feel like an afternoon at King's Island -- up and down. Itís also been historically difficult to gauge Daytonís overall progress as a program in light of soft schedules and suspect competition Ė especially outside the A10. Even in the good years, fans were always wondering if things were good enough in November when the rubber met the pavement.

The 2018 Flyers have question marks too, made more complicated by unanticipated roster defections and an armada of fresh young faces. Itís a program with an identity, but not one itís ever seemed entirely comfortable with. That next step on the ladder has been in a holding pattern for 8-10 seasons and at some point good enough will no longer be good enough.

DEPARTURES

The losses are significant. Midfielder James Haupt (4g, 1a) was a 4-year starter and the proverbial rock in the Flyer lineup. One of UDís most consistent players technically and physically, Haupt battled injuries but was a steadying force on the pitch when the personnel around him felt like a revolving door every season. Much of his worth focused on the little things boxscores donít keep track of. He was well respected in the A10 and made All-Conference during his career.

Alvaro Navarro (8g, 7a) was UDís most dynamic player in the central third and another All-A10 talent. Navarro had a hand in 15 of UDís 39 goals last year and got better as the season progressed. His vision was excellent but so too his ability to weight a perfect pass or dink to teammates pressing forward into space.

Ben Leba (2a) Ė a huge target with is strength and size -- appeared in 17 matches and started three.

Dillon Nino (D) and Nick Hagenkord (MF) were reliable starters that seemed to fall into and out of favor of the course of their careers Ė for reasonís weíll never know. Nino played in all but 37 minutes of the 2017 season while Hagenkord (2g, a1) started 14 matches and was a steadying influence in the midfield.

Helping Nino on defense was fellow senior Michael Brezovsky. He started all but one match and finished third on the roster in overall minutes played. Also in the back line was Lance Gaspar, a senior that started 11 games and appeared in 16 overall. Clearly, the Flyers lost a ton of experience in the back line and must find a way to replace and improve upon their contributions moving forward. Could it be addition by subtraction? Only if there are experienced defenders behind them and that doesn't appear to be the case just yet.

Last but not least, senior GK Justin Saliba graduated after losing his starting job to Federico Barrios over the last two seasons. The Beavercreek product left his mark however with excellent goaltending earlier in his career and played in six matches a year ago (his abbreviated play still resulted in a slightly lower GAA than Barrios). Perhaps his best moment came in the 2015 NCAA Tournament when he carried the Flyers to victory in a PK shootout vs Oakland.

Unfortunately, the departures donít end there. The Flyers lost 6-7 frosh Thor Helgason (8g, 1a) to homesickness. Helgason made huge strides over the course of the season and the Icelandic import gave the Flyers one of the tallest targets on offense of any player in college soccer. His ability to win headers and engage on set pieces was a weapon few teams could counter.

A couple other names did not return as well, though they saw limited or no action in 2017.

RETURNEES

Rok Taneski (10g, 7a) led the Flyers in scoring and assists as a sophomore and made All A10 First Team honors. The Slovenian has perhaps the best on-field work ethic on the team and uses his pace to cause problems both 1 vs. 1 and in combination play with Flyer teammates. Though just 5-9, he plays more like a target forward due to his quick-twitch ability to open up the field and get past the first defender. Teammates can serve balls to Taneskiís feet and feel comfortable something good will happen Ė despite oftentimes going up against larger defenders. The offense does well when it funnels through him and tends to sputter when they forget to give Taneski enough touches of the ball. That is unlikely to change in 2018 given the lack of experienced scoring elsewhere on the field. At times Taneski may be asked to do too much, but necessity may also require it.

Junior D/MF David Lianes (4a) has been a Currier favorite from the beginning and brings experience to the field as well as a calming influence. He and sophomore Jonas Fjeldberg (2g, 6a) are two names to remember as both must up their game to make up for graduations and departures in the offseason. And both are perfectly capable. They combined for 32 starts last year as Fjeldberg made the A10 All Rookie team and Lianes is poised for an All-Conference season in 2018 if he reaches his potential.

Sophomore Trey Marchino scored twice last year despite playing just 268 minutes, while classmate Wariebi Jituboh (1g) offers athleticism as a front-line player in Currierís direct offense. Junior MF Daniel Dos Santos (1g) started 11 matches a year ago and is also poised for a potential breakout season. Redshirt senior Aidan Bean brings maturity and experience to the back line lacking a healthy dose of both.

Several other players saw limited action in 2017 or took redshirt seasons entirely. All of them have a chance to see the field given the offseason departures.

LOCAL AND LONG DISTANCE NEWCOMERS

If nothing else, itís a large incoming class once again headlined by international players with immediate eligibility. Countries represented include Chile, Sweden, Ghana, Germany, and Finland. Stateside, Andrew Cross (Evansville, IN) was a two-time NSCAA All-American, Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year, and two-time First-Team All-State honoree. Fellow freshman Jake Donaldson was Ė likewise Ė the Gatorade Player of the Year from Georgia. Both have a great chance of helping the Flyer offense early in their careers.

With the Flyer back line decimated to graduation, Jacob Degler (Morrisville, NC), AJ Kirkby (Bartlett, IL) and Cole Watkins (Charlotte, NC) will duke it out with international newcomers Isaac Mensah (Accra, Ghana), Dennis Ntsin (Berlin, Germany), Agustin Volker (Vaparaiso, Chile), and Saikou Ceesay (Helsinki, Finland) for early playing time. We liked we what saw from Volker in the preseason exhibition vs Ohio State and while all of these players need time to transition to college ball both mentally and physically, there is a lot of upside as long as fans can be realistic about early expectations and afford them a few growing pains along the way.

Goalkeepers Nick Woodward (Holland, OH) and Jake Lofgren (Muskegon, MI) join the program alongside sophomore GK Jack Steele (Springboro, OH). The trio are likely to battle it out for primary backup duty behind Federico Barrios.

FLYER FOES

Dayton kicks off the season on Friday in Columbus, OH, as guests of an in-season tournament at Ohio State. The Flyers take on Hofstra on Aug. 24th and Furman on Aug. 26th. Itís a short drive to the state capital and should be a home away from home, but Hofstra (6-6-6 / #83 RPI) and Furman (12-5-3 / #87 RPI) are two of the tougher opening weekend matches in recent Flyer memory.

Dayton returns the favor to Ohio State the following weekend by hosting the Buckeyes, Marshall, and Milwaukee. UD plays Milwaukee (10-5-4 / #111 RPI) on Friday Aug. 31st and Marshall (8-10-1 / #125 RPI) on Monday Sept. 3rd.


The Flyers hit the road the following week for matches at Western Illinois (5-10-1 / #178 RPI) and East Tennessee State (9-2-7 / #69 RPI) Ė return matches in a two-game series. UD tied ETSU 1-1 and topped WIU 4-1 a year ago.

UD hosts Currierís old squad Incarnate Word (5-11-1 / #188 RPI) on Sept. 15th, then plays at Oakland (6-10-1 / #91 RPI) on Sept. 18th in another return game the Flyers won 6-2 last season.

The non-conference seasons wraps up at Baujan Field on Sept. 22nd and Sept. 26th against West Virginia (9-6-4 / #56 RPI) and Northern Kentucky. Both teams defeated the Flyers by 1-0 scores in 2017.

The Flyers face five non-conference teams they played a year ago. Can they do better then 2-2-1?

Atlantic-10 play commences on Sept. 29th as the Flyers host Saint Louis. Home and away matches are then traded throughout the rest of the season, beginning on Oct. 3rd at St. Bonavenuture, at home vs. Davidson (Oct. 6th), at Rhode Island (Oct. 13th), vs. LaSalle (Oct. 17th), at UMass (Oct. 20th), vs. VCU (Oct. 27th), and at Fordham (Oct. 31st). The Atlantic-10 postseason tournament is hosted by Saint Louis.

Overall, there are plenty of opportunities to snatch some victories both inside the non-con schedule and within A10 play. About half the non-conference opponents are inside the top 50% of the RPI Ė which is actually a step up from prior seasons. That said, there are no matches where a positive result will make headlines beyond the Dayton area, and that continues to be a point of contention for fans waiting for the program to take a step forward and become a regionally and nationally recognized club. West Virginia is probably UDís best hope in that regard, but the lack of quality Big10, ACC, or Big East opponents in UDís back yard continues to cheat the players and fans of measuring the Flyers against competition that does damage in the NCAA tournament. Weíre not convinced the A10 will ever be strong enough to punch UDís ticket alone based on SOS Ė no Flyer menís soccer team has ever earned an NCAA at-large bid (nevermind been on the final cut list). That said, this yearís team will likely find the 2018 schedule more than challenging enough to keep them occupied in practice and in the film room. There are also plenty of familiar non-conference opponents for returning players to digest.

POINTS AND COUNTERPOINTS

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the exhibition vs Ohio State, nine of 11 starters were international players beyond the border. Not that we care where good talent comes from, but the repetitive yearly turnover of these same foreign-born players has led to a state of perpetual re-invention over the last decade of UD Menís Soccer. Notwithstanding language and culture barriers, the inability to retain quality players in the offseason has limited the effectiveness of building a program identity that builds off one season and into another.

The Flyers feel like a new wardrobe every year and when it takes a year or two to break in that favorite shirt, the wife has tossed the shirt before the shirt has made it that far. Itís not as if the Flyers are the only program that scours the globe for talent, but UD is not Akron where the loss of a few key international players to homesickness, pro contracts, or graduation is offset by an offseason of incoming U-20 national team players with future MLS contracts all but signed, sealed, and delivered. Different fish in different ponds.

That said, UD has scored big with players like Amass Amankona and Lalas Abubakar. But for every Amass or Lalas, there are five others that never made it to graduation day at UD Arena and left the program with an immediate void. How Dayton becomes that program of cohesion and consistency is not the concern of the fans as long as thereís a clear path to make it happen. But roster turnover seems to be an impediment to that goal and unless teams can recruit at a level to offset it every year and make it irrelevant, the lack of chemistry among returning players is always going to be an issue that reflects in the product on the field.

Defensively, UD has to rebuild the back line and while Federico Barrios is one of the best goalkeepers in the conference, heíll need help. The good news is Dayton earned two shutouts against BGSU and Ohio State in the preseason. The defense was organized, compact, and overall fans liked what they saw. As much as youth and inexperience may be lamented, talent overcomes many things. If the Flyers can continue to keep the score down, it will give the UD offense time to define roles and develop additional scoring threats.

Beyond Rok Taneski however, those scoring threats are still largely unknown. While UD posted two shutouts in the preseason, they also failed to score. Fjeldberg has potential with his pace and ability to put quality crosses in the box, but the 6-7 Helgason is no longer there as an imposing target forward. The loss of Alvaro Navarro Ė UDís most consistent player Ė is a hole yet to be filled and that was apparent in the two exhibitions. Lacking possession and distribution, the Flyer offense lost steam as the match went on vs Ohio State. The season may ultimately ride on grooming someone in the central third that can pinwheel the offense much like Amankona did a few years ago. Booming long balls down the touch lines is not a long-term success strategy as too many of the quality teams on the schedule can turn those chances away without much of a problem.

Taneski must get his touches as well; Dayton is just a better team when heís involved. He canít live his junior season on a deserted island however and needs a second dynamic striker to play alongside and divide defensive attention. Whom that might be is an answer the coaching staff is curious to find out as much as the fan base.

The Flyers are also young and inexperienced. With just two seniors on the team (Kluba and Bean), it may be a free-for-all in fall practice as players sort out their roles while the coaching staff elects to play the hot hand. But Currier has always kept a pretty short bench and may do so once again and stick with the guys he trusts the most.

PREDICTIONS

Menís soccer at the college level yields far more parity than the womanís game, making subtle changes in tactics, lineups, and coaching far more pronounced. The difference between winning and losing is a thin line because even the worst teams have great athletes and a couple players capable of hurting opponents. Unless your call letters are UCLA, ND, or UNC, chances are you canít take any opponent lightly and that certainly applies to the Dayton Flyers.

UDís chances hinge on two key elements: developing a defense capable of keeping the score down and gelling as a team with so many new names, faces, and languages to overcome. Ordinarily the Flyers choose to outscore their opponents and against the weaker teams in college soccer thatís not entirely undoable. But itís easier to keep the score down than manufacture two or three goals a night against teams with better talent and experience. The Flyers donít need to bunker, but they do need to rely on being stingy to give their young offense time to figure things out. Look at the best teams in college soccer -- the ones that threaten to make the College Cup every season. They all play defense and know how to win 1-0 against top opposition.

But how does UD become stingy and drop their GAA under 1.00? Developing more sustained possession will go a long way. The opposition canít score if they donít have the ball. UD must develop some patience and forgo the quick-strike urge in favor of the slow but methodical buildup. It will take pressure off the inexperienced Flyer back line, spread the touches around and get everyone involved, and give Taneski, Fjeldberg, and the rest of the offense time to find their identity.

If UD struggles with maintaining possession and wind up chasing the ball in most matches, their chances are not great. As solid as Barrios is between the pipes, he canít turn water into wine and neither can 10 field players out of position and constantly retreating into the defensive half. Itís a team that can be a lot better by year-end if they buy in and focus on the basics Ė possession, making the easy pass, winning corners and set pieces, and avoiding the big blunder. Still, this remains a team that would have benefited tremendously from the glue of James Haupt for one more year.

The opposition is dead-set on making that unattainable however and many foes probably have as much or more talent and experience to make that happen. Given the thin line between winning and losing however, the home field advantage Baujan Field adds, the unbalanced A10 schedule model, and perhaps a lucky bounce or two, we think the Flyers can and will qualify for the A10 postseason tournament once again.

But is it really good enough? And will it ever not be?

Projected A10 Finish: 7th
Projected A10 Tournament Finish: Quarterfinals
Postseason: None
__________________

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

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