Originally Published: September 3, 2014 6:01 a.m.
PRESCOTT, Arizona - In 2014, the two-time defending Cal Pac Conference champion Embry-Riddle men's soccer team has its sights set on capturing a third straight league title and making some noise at the NAIA national tournament come late November.
Second-year coach Adam Pearce has brought a tactical approach to a program whose players are blessed with smarts and skill.
The Eagles, who opened the season Aug. 22, will carry a 1-0-1 record into a non-conference match this Friday at The Master's College in Santa Clarita, California. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. With a difficult pre-league schedule, their goal is to get back to nationals and advance past the first round, which they haven't done the past two years.
"The vision of the program is to compete for championships annually at the conference level, and pursue them at the national level," Pearce said from practice this past week. "The next piece is to get past that first round."
In the off-season, ERAU graduated seven players. So Pearce added nine driven, talented, detail-oriented freshmen and one transfer to his roster, which has eight returning starters and 13 total returnees.
Junior midfielder Isaac Sanchez of Mexico City, a 2013 NAIA All-West Region pick, and senior co-captain/forward Fabio Peña of Sao Paolo, Brazil, lead Embry-Riddle's attack.
Three freshmen, including F Nicholas Goldstein of Pleasanton, California, who tallied two goals in the preseason; MF Garret Bechtel of Casa Grande; and MF Thomas King of Colorado Springs, Colorado, are other potential threats, as is sophomore MF Chase Rinehart of Las Vegas.
Defensively, redshirt junior goalkeeper Alex Elden of Littleton, Colorado, returns as the starter. Senior co-captain Ryan Holt of Chandler, a two-time first team all-conference center back, guides the unit.
Last week, Sanchez iterated that the Eagles want to three-peat as conference champs and advance to nationals while growing a fan base in the community.
"It's important for us to keep improving and be Top 10 in the nation," Sanchez said of the team. "We are all very good friends and we are very competitive. So every single practice we are fighting for a spot, and that just makes us better."
Pearce didn't arrive on Prescott's ERAU campus until late last July, so he kept his system as simple as possible for the players (only two of which were his guys) and himself during an adjustment period.
The move paid off, as the Eagles finished the regular campaign with a 12-4-1 overall record, won the league title on their own field and advanced to nationals. In the NAIA's preseason Top 25 poll, ERAU was among those teams receiving votes.
"The big thing from last year to this year is that everybody knows now what coach Pearce expects of us and what we needed to come in expecting from him as well," Elden said. "Our team together is more like a family than it's ever been. We'd all do anything for each other and it's nice to have that on a team."
This past spring, Pearce began stamping his "imprint" on the program, implementing a technically driven, intelligent brand of soccer for his players to follow. The system focuses on disciplined execution in a 4-5-1 on-field alignment.
Embry-Riddle's 11-game conference slate starts at 3 p.m. Sept. 18 at Cal-Merced, and they hope the ride is as pleasurable as possible.
"We've got guys that really enjoyed the spring, and now we get to put it against live action," Pearce said. "The thing I tell my kids all the time is, 'I don't really want to coach a team that I wouldn't want to watch play,' because I want to enjoy it and I want them to enjoy it."
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc
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