BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Signings should help as Pilots aim to build something big

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND  - The return of Ben Michel and the addition of a recruiting class that has been ranked best in the nation bodes well for a competitive 2018 season and beyond for the Portland Pilots.Measured in trophies, Year 2 of Portland Pilots men's soccer under coach Nick Carlin-Voigt was second best.

But the Pilots were among the big winners of this year's recruiting cycle.

Carlin-Voigt this week introduced a class of seven freshmen and two transfers. The Pilots could add a couple more players to the group, which was rated as No. 3 in the nation ithis week by Top Drawer Soccer.

The website in January had Portland's class ranked No. 1 in the nation. UCLA's class jumped to No. 1 in the Top Drawer Soccer rankings after signing day and Wake Forest is at No. 2. But the Pilots held onto their commitments, bringing in five players with United States youth national team experience as part of a heralded class.

Carlin-Voigt says he started this process the day he was hired in January 2016.

"I'll tell you in four years how good the class was," he says. "What it does show is that top players are deciding to come to the University of Portland who maybe weren't considering this path before. We're getting top players from really strong hotbeds in youth soccer.

"UP men's soccer is becoming a destination again, which is exciting."

Five of the additions are ranked among the top 100 nationally by various outlets: forward Jake Arteaga and defender Kelee Cornfield-Saunders from the Los Angeles Galaxy Academy program, forward Alejandro J. Pereira from the Orlando City Academy, midfielder Greg Tracey from the Colorado Rapids Academy and midfielder Tristan Weber from Orange County SC in California.

Other incoming freshmen are midfielder/forward R.J. Stretch from Spokane, Washington, who has played for the Seattle Sounders Academy, and 6-foot goalkeeper Georges El-Khoury from Sharon, Massachusettes.

In January, a pair of defenders with two seasons of eligibility transferred to Portland: Brian O'Hara from Pac-12 California and Francesco Tiozzo from Winthrop. O'Hara played for the Galaxy Academy before college and was a top-100 recruit out of high school. Tiozzo is a central defender from Italy who earned Big South Conference accolades in his two seasons at Winthrop.

O'Hara and Tiozzo have fit in well during winter practices, Carlin-Voigt says. The Pilots are gearing up for the first of seven spring practice games, with Seattle Sounders II scheduled to visit Merlo Field at 5 p.m. Saturday. The match is open to the public.

Arteaga, Cornfield-Saunders and Pereira have played for U.S. youth national teams. Weber and Tracey are part of U.S. Soccer's youth residency program. Weber will play as an amateur for the United Soccer League's Orange County Blues after his high school season ends. Tracey has attended youth national team training camps.

This was the first Pilots class Carlin-Voigt had two years to recruit. He says the No. 1 ranking is a tribute to the work of his assistant coaches and support staff — especially top assistant Leonard Griffin -- and a reflection of the pedigree of the arriving players.

He wants to add another experienced goalkeeper and two field players to this class and is seeking experienced international players or transfers to bring maturity to the roster.

The program's potential was rediscovered in Carlin-Voigt's first season as coach, when the Pilots won the West Coast Conference championship. Last fall, they came up short of a title, but by other measurements the 2017 Pilots progressed. Portland beat five of the eight NCAA playoff teams it faced, with convincing victories over highly-ranked Western Michigan (4-1) and Pacific, and wins over NCAA tourney teams Fairfield (6-0), Seattle (2-1) and Cal State Fullerton (5-0) as well. Three of the Pilots' seven losses came in overtime. And their RPI was better than in 2016.

Midfielder Rey Ortiz was named to Top Drawer Soccer's Best XI Second Team after delivering 13 assists and six goals in his sophomore season. Ortiz, fellow sophomore Benji Michel and senior goalkeeper Paul Christensen were all-WCC and all-Far West Region.

Carlin-Voigt points to the improvement made by Ortiz, Michel (who had 10 goals for the second year in a row, despite drawing extra attention from defenses and playing through injuries) and midfielder Gio Magana-Rivera as a positive.

"They all made steps forward. They all progressed. And sometimes that's difficult when you have a lot of success early on," the coach says.

The Pilots played a better brand of soccer in 2017, he contends. 

"Our top-end quality on the field was better," he says. :Our style of play and the way we moved the ball, the way we scored at times, was better. We weren't beating teams 5-0 (in 2016)."

Late-season losses to San Francisco and Saint Mary's left the 2017 Pilots tied for second and without a berth in the NCAA tournament.

"We have high standards here. We were disappointed not to be in the tournament, and we were disappointed to be in second place," Carlin-Voigt says. "It's a sign of a healthy program when you want to win a championship every year."

Less experience and a few more injuries late in the year caught up with the Pilots in 2017, though. An ankle injury to junior defender Lionel Mills during the home match against USF was costly. The Pilots were 2-4-1 when Mills did not play or missed significant minutes. Seniors Brandon Zambrano and Jason Romero also battled injuries down the stretch.

In recruiting, Carlin-Voigt sought replacements for three captains: goalkeeper Christensen, center back Kris Reaves and midfielder Matthew Coffee.

Christensen was in goal for four seasons and was the top goalkeeper in the WCC the past two. He was chosen by Atlanta United in January's MLS SuperDraft.

Reaves, who played the last two seasons at Portland after starting at Wake Forest, was the Pilots' most valuable player this season, according to Carlin-Voigt. He recently signed a MLS homegrown player contract with FC Dallas.

Coffee was a driving force for the Pilots in midfield as a fifth-year senior.

"We will have some big personalities to replace" among the seven graduating seniors, Carlin-Voigt says.

With the equivalent of 9.9 full scholarships available for a squad of 20 or more — at a school where the cost to attend is around $60,000 a year — Carlin-Voigt says building the depth he wants requires some creativity. But Portland has plenty to offer potential players.

"What's a huge plus is Portland is known as Soccer City USA. You come to the University of Portland because soccer is a major driving force in your life. And you want to be at a school where soccer is the most popular sport in the fall," the coach says.

Carlin-Voigt sells tradition, the recent success of the program and the top-notch field the Pilots call home.

"There's a lot of buzz around our program," he says.

Carlin-Voigt also is trying to improve the soccer experience for all WCC teams. He has proposed a switch from playing two conference games in three days (Friday-Sunday) to playing once a week. It won't happen in 2018, but Carlin-Voigt will continue to lobby.

"The biggest game of the year, we're playing on 30 hours rest against San Francisco, and I don't think that's fair to the student-athlete experience," he says.

With only seven conference games to play, the once-a-week schedule is possible.

"There's a blueprint to solve it. All the coaches are behind it. All the players are behind it," he says. "That's something in our sport we have control over and we have to fix."

One thing that continues to change in men's college soccer is the recruiting pool is shrinking because players are going to MLS academy teams or taking other pro options. Carlin-Voigt says only two of the 23 players from the U.S. team that reached the 2017 under-17 World Cup quarterfinals plan to play college soccer. But he remains optimistic about the future for his program.

"Top players still want to play in front of fans, they still want to play in soccer-specific venues, and there's enough good players in our region," he says. "We always look first in Oregon and Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Now what you're seeing is the reputation of the program is very strong, not just up and down the West Coast but in the Midwest and the East Coast."

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