The Eastern Oregon University men’s soccer team has high hopes and expectations entering the 2019 season — in spite of losing more than half its roster from 2018’s best-ever season in program history, including a plethora of seniors.
In fact, there is a belief that within the 14 players brought on by second-year head coach Zach Mills and his staff, 2019 could be an even better year for the Mountaineers.
“We lost a lot of players. However, the coaches did a lot of good recruiting,” said redshirt senior Carlos Solorio, who led EOU with 12 goals and four assists last fall. “I believe this year (the coaches) brought good reinforcements for the team. We felt short last year in a playoff scenario where we should have won. I believe with the reinforcements we will be a powerhouse team.”
Gone are 16 players from a season ago, including a handful of players — Steven Beaudry, Jesus Trejo, Aldo Rivas and Anthony Leavens — who were among the holdovers from the inaugural 2015 squad.
But back are the top three scorers for EOU — Solorio, sophomore Connor Young (seven goals, three assists) and redshirt senior Alex Gutierrez (four goals, three assists) — and 10 other returners from a team that went 11-4-4, reached the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament for the first time and fell just short of a CCC title game berth after a 1-0 loss to Rocky Mountain in the semifinals.
It’s a loss that, with the addition of talent from across the U.S. and beyond, players believe could be avenged this fall.
“We have a lot of depth, and like Carlos said, we’re coming back to finish the business we didn’t finish last year,” said Gutierrez, who is one of the three original remaining Mountaineers from 2015 — Oscar Munoz and Jorge Chavez are the other two. “If we’re not winning the conference, I think we’re going to win the (CCC) tournament.”
Among those players brought in by Mills, assistant coach Jessy Watson and graduate assistant Keelan Barker are two 20-goal scorers from a year ago in former Southwest Mississippi Community College teammates Felipe Madero and Patrick Larsen. Madero, who is from Argentina, is one of three South American athletes on the roster, which also features players from England, Mexico and South Africa.
“What I look for is work ethic and attitude, and then after that we look at talent,” Mills said. “We knew what we needed. We saw the potential, provided we have chemistry. We search for those players who are going to be successful.”
Mills said finding the right pieces to add was a challenge, but once they found the players they wanted, selling them on EOU was easy.
“It seems like everyone we showed interest in we got,” he said, adding that what EOU offers — from new facilities, scenery and education to a program on the rise — shows the players something they want to get on board with.
“This place is going somewhere. So when we bring recruits on campus, they see that as well,” Mills said. “(The) players who we bring in already have that attitude (to get better).”
Mills also has high hopes for newcomers like Mike Dias and Alexander Zuluaga out of Cal State Dominguez Hills, and Javier Moran out of LA Mission College — the same school Solorio attended.
“(There are) so many guys I could talk about,” he said.
The talent level that’s been brought in is also pushing the returners to improve.
“With players coming in like that, they up the intensity. They push each other to be their best,” Gutierrez said.
Larsen said that’s because, at the end of the day, there are only 11 starting spots available.
“You have to beat out whoever is in that position, but we’re still a team. It’s really competitive, but it’s a friendly competitive,” he said. “To me as a newcomer, I think my best position is to lift other players up and challenge them more. Obviously you want to have the starting position, but the main thing is you want to make the team better as a whole.”
And Mills believes that even though mainstays of the program for its first four years are gone, the players who are here now can lift Eastern to new heights.
“That’s what we keep talking about. We’re thankful for the guys who made it possible, but yes, we expect to be better than we’ve been in the past,” he said.
On the field, Mills said, the emphasis will be on the defensive side of the ball.
“We want to be sound and strong in the back,” he said. “We want to focus on shutting (our) opponents out, and we know with our talent up top (in the formation), we’re going to find the back of the net.”
He also plans to outwork the opposition, adding, “We want them to feel like we’re swarming and overloading them at all angles.”
Both Solorio and Gutierrez pointed out that playing as a family — a vital component a year ago — will be a key for EOU if it wants to realize its potential this fall.
Larsen said he’s already seeing that family feel build, and he noted another piece to the puzzle for success.
“We need to be a unit and trust each other,” he said. “You can have 10 players in synch, but that one player not (in synch) can throw it off.”
EOU will get a good gauge of where it stands early with a preseason slate that includes Vanguard and Marymount California — ranked 11th and 25th, respectively, in the final poll of 2018 — on a three-game California road trip that begins Sept. 2.
“We’re going to really see what we’re made of, and then we’ll adjust,” Mills said of the nonconference schedule.
The key CCC matches, the coach said, are at Corban Sept. 21, Southern Oregon Oct. 12 and Rocky Mountain Oct. 18. Those happen to be the three teams ahead of EOU in the CCC preseason coaches’ poll, and teams that were all in the top 15 following the 2018 season.
“I believe the league has to be aware of us a little bit more,” Solorio said. “We’re going to come for those top three teams.”