Originally Published: August 21, 2008 9:51 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Bolstered by a stingy midfield and a quick attack, the 2008 Embry-Riddle men's soccer team believes it is poised to post the best record in the short history of the program.
The Eagles, an unranked NAIA Independent that earned four votes for inclusion into the association's top 25 preseason poll, have shown steady improvement since the team's inception in 2004 - capped by an 11-7 season this past fall under fifth-year coach Jim Barlow.
ERAU opened the 2008 campaign Thursday night at home with a stiff test against preseason NAIA No. 4-ranked Fresno Pacific, which downed the Eagles 1-0 with a goal in the 64th minute.
Embry-Riddle will play 10 home matches this season - the most it has ever had. The Eagles start and end the fall with four straight home games, something Barlow likes.
The squad will play two NAIA stalwarts toward the end of the year, including current No. 1 Asuza Pacific (Calif.) Sept. 27 on the road and sixth-ranked Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) Oct. 17 in Prescott.
"We received votes in the NAIA poll for the first time in our history," said Barlow, whose club just missed qualifying for the Region II playoffs last season. "This is a big year for us. Now all we have to do is live up to the preseason hype."
Among independents, the NAIA rated Embry-Riddle second best out of 18 teams in the newly created Association of Independent Institutions - a conference whose four-team tournament winner earns an automatic bid into the NAIA playoffs in early December.
"This year, instead of doing regions, the NAIA is going conference direct - meaning that if you win your conference, you get an automatic bid," Barlow said. "It's a great opportunity for us because we have our own voice now, and we've never had that."
Three stalwart forwards return this year to guide the Embry-Riddle attack, highlighted by senior forward Jason Aspelund, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound three-year letter winner from Tacoma, Wash.
Last season Aspelund booted in a whopping 16 goals and registered eight assists as the club's main gun up top.
Felipe Ferreira, a junior from Sao Paulo, Brazil, tallied 10 scores as a sophomore and is expected to continue finding the net in '08.
"We want to put the ball on the ground and we want to knock it around with high energy and focus," Barlow said.
Ferreira is one of 10 foreign-born players, including four from Brazil, on the 26-man ERAU roster.
In the offseason, Barlow scouts foreign players at an international showcase in Miami, where 130 athletes congregated this year.
"When I came here in '04, I had a couple of Brazilians who played for me in California, and they followed me here," Barlow said. "Through them, I've met other people. But the level of our domestic players is getting better and better."
Sophomore Carlo Franke of Kassel, Germany, who broke the program's sophomore scoring record with six tallies this past fall, rounds out the unit's main corps.
Barlow is also counting on freshman Andre Verardi, a 6-2, 175-pound Brazilian, for depth on offense.
Getting them the ball are returning senior midfielder Guilherme Lopes, who snapped the program record for assists with 12 in 2007, as well as sophomore mids Andrew Criss, Patrick Patzig and freshman attacking mid Magi Manresa of Barcelona, Spain.
"We're going to be able to hold the ball," the coach said. "We've got some guys who are very technically skilled, and that's going to be our strength."
On defense, freshmen Scott Larson of Wheaton, Ill., and Zach Ulrich of Plymouth, Calif., will start on an athletic back row that has some limited collegiate experience.
Sophomore Nate Dillenbeck of Chino Valley High School fame helps solidify the unit after making the successful transition from attacker to the back line.
Goalie Jakob Horstmann, a 6-1, 165-pound sophomore from Halver, Germany, returns for his second straight season in the net.
An honor's student with a 4.0 GPA at ERAU, Horstmann, the team's captain, is known for being savvy and serious - both on and off the field.
"He's about as good of a goalkeeper as we've ever had here," Barlow said. "He's technically sound and he's got a great wingspan. He covers a lot of territory."