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'We want to create our own narrative:' Portland men's soccer aiming for more in 2023
By Aaron Heisen,
Despite recording nine shots on goal and holding 60-percent of possession, the University of Portland soccer team trailed No. 19 Denver 2-1 shortly into the second half on Sept. 15. The Pilots had conceded a 46th minute goal to Sam Bassett — his second of the game — but at that point, felt their play didn’t mirror what the scoreboard showed.
“I thought we dominated in large stretches of the game,” Pilots head coach Nick Carlin-Voigt said. “But, we found ourselves chasing them.”
While the gameplan remained somewhat similar, the deficit forced Carlin-Voigt to change his tactics and put more pressure on the Pioneers’ goal. The switch helped the Pilots find not just an equalizer, but two more goals to cushion what was a 4-2 win.
Carlin-Voigt lauded his players’ comradery as the reason that those alterations were successful. It’s not the first time the Pilots have been in a close affair against a top-notch team. Their previous game against West Virginia was decided by a last-minute goal. In fact, that phenomenon traces back to last year’s playoffs, when the University of Pittsburgh ended Portland’s season with an overtime goal that pushed the Panthers into the final four.
The Pilots had found their stride at the right time, and a loss like that is not something they want to experience again. To do so, it’ll require seeing those tight games — that ultimately became losses — as learning moments.
Heading into the 2022 season, the Pilots had hopes of earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They were led by winger Brandon Cunningham and defenders Jake Arteaga and Delentz Pierre — all of whom now play in Major League Soccer.
They rattled off nine wins in their last 11 games and took that momentum into the playoffs.
“I think we peaked at the right time,” current team captain Kevin Bonilla said. “We kind of laid out the blueprint this past year and now we’re a step ahead in terms of togetherness and family.”
The Pilots had notable departures but they returned five starters from last year’s team, and Bonilla feels that if any trait is going to get them over the hump they hit last year, it’s that comradery.
Their motto for 2023 is “together through adversity” — a saying that stems from their willingness to share personal hardships in the locker room.
It also motivates them to cover for teammates when one is injured, and trust tactical changes in tight-knit games. Soccer is a game of miniscule margins, both on the field and in scorelines, which will inevitably not always go the way the Pilots want.
Take those affairs against Pittsburgh and West Virginia for example. They faced the Panthers in last year’s Elite 8 and held a clean sheet through regulation as goalkeeper George Tasouris had 10 saves. Ultimately, their inability to find a goal cost them as the Panthers scored in overtime and advanced.
Then, after starting the 2023 season 3-0 and earning the No. 3 rank in the NCAA poll, they had a similar drought against the Mountaineers — who were ranked No. 16 at the time, but have since moved up to No. 4.
That scoreless showing wasn’t the product of a lack of shots on net. The Pilots’ travel from Portland to West Virginia impacted their performance, Carlin-Voigt said. They peppered the goal with attempts, but none found the back of it, before the Mountaineers scored on one of the final kicks of the game.
“I definitely took it pretty tough,” Bonilla said. “But looking back at it, it was kind of one of those good moments. You have to remember what it feels to lose, for us to win the rest of our games or to win bigger games.”
Result aside, it was a positive experience for Bonilla, who got to play in front of his dad for the first time as a Pilot. For the team, it acted as a reality check of sorts as a loss like this helps prepare them for crucial games down the road.
But the Pilots are playing for more than just a West Coast Conference title and an NCAA Tournament run.
“I think we’re all on the shoulders of the people who’ve come before us,” Carlin-Voigt said “We want to create our own narrative and our own history and I think we have to understand the past and respect the past.”
Carlin-Voigt does his due diligence to speak about Portland-great Clive Charles, who played for the Portland Timbers late in his career and went on to coach the Pilots in 1986. Charles’ impact extended to youth soccer players in Portland as he left an indelible mark on the city.
In addition, Carlin-Voigt told the story of how Henry Merlo administered the construction of Merlo field after Portland beat UCLA in 1988 as a reminder to his players when they faced the Bruins again in 2018. Nuggets like that are crucial to his coaching philosophy.
“We know that we’re playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Jacob Babalai, the team’s leading goal-scorer, said.
That much was evident in Portland’s 4-2 win against Denver. Like when Carlin-Voigt moved Babalai to a position in which he’d be facing the goal on attacks rather than playing with his back to it, as a facilitator, and Buba Fofanah into more of a traditional striker role — both were quick to embrace the decision.
The Pilots surely uplift their past, but Carlin-Voigt’s quick to acknowledge this year’s team is creating its own narrative. It’s one centered around family, and conjoining to complete their ultimate goal of overcoming the hump they hit last season.