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Preview: Soaring in 2018? Embry-Riddle men’s soccer ready to roll with favorable schedule

College Soccer

PHOTO: Embry-Riddle men’s soccer players David Bates, Daniel Nunez, Joel Paget and Sebastian Aguas dribble during practice Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Prescott. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

PHOTO: Embry-Riddle men’s soccer players David Bates, Daniel Nunez, Joel Paget and Sebastian Aguas dribble during practice Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Prescott. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

PRESCOTT — In the end, mind-numbing miscues and a lack of on-field balance inhibited the Embry-Riddle men’s soccer team from becoming a stronger unit in 2017.

For ERAU coach Dan Balaguero, that characterization may best synopsize his squad’s slightly-better-than-average play during his first season on the Eagles’ bench.

Embry-Riddle finished the fall with an 11-9-0 overall record and a 7-4 mark in the NAIA’s Cal Pac Conference, losing 2-0 to Cal-Merced in the league tournament’s semifinals last Nov. 9. It was not a bad campaign, but it didn’t meet Balaguero’s expectations.

Armed with nine returning starters, the Eagles believe that they have a lot to prove when their 2018 season kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, versus Ottawa University-Surprise on their campus field off Willow Creek Road.

2018 Embry-Riddle Men’s Soccer

Affiliation: NAIA

Conference: California Pacific

2017 Record: 11-9 (7-4 Cal Pac)

2017 Playoffs: DNQ

Coach: Dan Balaguero, 2nd season

2018 Players to Watch: MF David Bates, Sr.; D Sergio Monteiro, Soph.; F Mason Laaksonen, Jr.; F Chiedu Ikeme, Fr.; MF Jacob Baker, Soph.; MF Sebastian Aguas Jaramillo, Soph.

2018 Schedule:

Date Opponent Time

8/17 Ottawa-Arizona 7 p.m.

9/1 Eastern Oregon 7 p.m.

9/3 Trinity International 1:30 p.m.

9/7 Hope International Noon

9/8 The Master’s Univ. 2:30 p.m.

9/13 Arizona Christian 7 p.m.

9/20 Antelope Valley* 7:30 p.m.

9/22 Pacific Union* 8 p.m.

9/27 at Soka Univ.* 4:30 p.m.

9/29 at Marymount* 7:30 p.m.

10/4 Simpson* 7:30 p.m.

10/6 UC-Merced* 3:30 p.m.

10/11 at Sierra-Nevada* 2 p.m.

10/13 at UC-Maritime* 1:30 p.m.

10/18 La Sierra* 7:30 p.m.

10/20 at Providence Chr.* 3 p.m.

10/26 Bethesda 7 p.m.

11/3 Benedictine-Mesa* 3:30 p.m.

  • Cal Pac Conference Match

“This year, we’re playing more to the personnel we have,” Balaguero said from practice Aug. 14. “We can’t go and play straight up with these top NAIA teams because, right now, we’re just not quite as good as them. We’re just trying to change the way we play – put an emphasis on putting bodies behind the ball and attacking when we need to attack.”

Balaguero, who spent nine seasons as coach at Texas-Brownsville, another NAIA program, enjoys being here in the desert southwest.

“We want to eliminate the losses – we had nine last year, and we had a lot of bad ones,” said Balaguero, who grew up in Nottingham, England, and played soccer at a junior college in Vermont and at West Virginia University in the late 1990s before turning to coaching. “We’re just trying to get our record better. We have a chance in the conference, but it’s going to be difficult.”

CAL PAC CHANCES

If Embry-Riddle can win the Cal Pac tourney, or even finish as the runner-up, the Eagles would almost certainly qualify for the NAIA National Championships Nov. 26 through Dec. 1 at Orange County Great Park Soccer Stadium in Irvine, California.

“This year, I definitely feel like we can get back to the semifinals, and maybe even the finals [of the Cal Pac tournament],” ERAU senior midfielder David Bates, who majors in aeronautics, said. “We’re looking a lot better this year. Everyone’s more focused. Preseason has gone a lot better. Everyone’s more fit.

“I’m really confident that we can get a conference title this year.”

To which sophomore defender and aerospace engineering student Sergio Monteiro of Malaga, Spain, added, “The team is more connected. The seniors are doing a great job at talking a lot, especially with the freshmen.”

Embry-Riddle’s opener begins a season-long, eight-match home stand, from Friday through Saturday, Sept. 22.

The Eagles start their conference slate at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 against Antelope Valley and conclude the stand vs. Pacific Union. It’s a span that stretches nearly half the season.

In fact, the Eagles won’t play their first away match until 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at league foe Soka University of America, followed by a visit to NAIA National semifinalist and defending Cal Pac champ Marymount. After that, they will still have more games at home than on the road, playing five in Prescott – including an Oct. 6 league showdown with national qualifier Cal-Merced – and four in unfamiliar territory.

Final schedule tally for the Eagles in 2018? 13 home matches and five away games. Wow.

“Hopefully we can get the community engaged as much as we can,” Balaguero said.

MOVING FORWARD

This season, Embry-Riddle returns nearly its entire starting lineup from 2017.

“I’m pumped up,” Bates said. “It’s going to be a fun ride.”

In the up-tempo, high-pressure attack, watch for junior forward Mason Laaksonen (6-foot, 160 pounds) of Austin, Texas, who was Cal Pac Freshman of the Year in 2016, and senior forward Daniel Nunez of Las Vegas. Balaguero also likes talented freshman forward Chiedu Ikeme of Inverness, Scotland, who should make waves.

Laaksonen, a natural goal scorer as a freshman, returns to the team after missing 2017 due to injury.

Feeding them the ball in the possession game are Bates of Anchorage, Alaska, sophomore midfielder Jacob Baker (6-0, 165) of Graham, Washington, senior midfielder Grant Rowe of Albuquerque, and sophomore midfielder Sebastian Aguas Jaramillo of Quito, Ecuador.

Baker was the Eagles’ second-leading goal scorer last fall.

Balaguero said Aguas Jaramillo, a transfer, should control the offensive tempo at center mid.

Defensively, senior goalkeeper Jake Hutto (6-0, 180) of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and sophomore keeper Gabriel Sano (6-4, 225) of Las Vegas return. Sophomore defenders Monteiro, Jarred Petersen of Caldicot, England, and Simon Jensen of Boras, Sweden, as well as junior defender Garrett Neiss of Kent, Washington, and junior defender Marc Birkvald (6-0, 155) of Denmark form the backbone.

“It’s a very compact defense,” said Monteiro, who’s been in the U.S. for only two years. “We fight for all the balls. … Just come and support us, because it’s going to be a great season for us.”

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.