CHICAGO – Fresh off the most successful four-year run in program history, the University of Chicago men's soccer team embarks on its next chapter in 2019. The Maroons have new leadership at the top, a fresh crop of rookies to integrate into the roster and returning talent that will get the opportunity to step into big roles right away.
Pat Flinn makes his return to Hyde Park in his debut campaign as UChicago's new head coach. He previously spent three years as an assistant coach (2014-16) under Mike Babst, who departed for Davidson College in January after six seasons at UChicago.
With Flinn taking over at the helm, he will have a youthful squad to mold. The 25-man roster features three seniors, six juniors, nine sophomores and seven first-years.
"Not only is this my first year, but we have a really young team," he said "I think it will be an exciting season in that nobody knows how this thing is going to play out and that players will have an opportunity to take on more than what they have in the past. Elements of the game that I want any team that I coach to possess would be to have clear ideas with and without the ball, excellent transitions, and a group of players that compete as hard as they can day in and day out."
The 2018 Maroons capped off a historic four-season stretch that featured back-to-back NCAA semifinal appearances and three-straight University Athletic Association (UAA) titles. The departed senior class posted a 66-11-8 record (.823 winning percentage) while boasting three All-Americans in Max Lopez, Matthew Koh and Nicco Capotosto.
"I can't put into words how important those guys were (Koh, Lopez, Capotosto, Scofield, Pierce), and I would put the senior class the year before (Reimann, Abedian, Bonin, Huang) right there with them," Flinn said. "It's hard to think the guys were only here for four years when you look at all that they accomplished, and how far the program has developed since their first year.
"Their legacy is that the expectations are higher, and that there is a lot of pride in keeping this program moving forward. I'm not sure exactly how long it will take to get this team playing at that level again, but because the foundation has been laid, I have no doubt that we will ultimately get back there and beyond."
The defensive side of the field remains almost intact, led by All-Region selections in goalkeeper Aaron Katsimpalis and outside back Scott Lich, alongside fellow starters Nate Johnson and Isaiah Holquist. The Maroons limited opponents to a mere 17 goals in 22 games played (0.77 allowed per game). Katsimpalis won 18 games with 11 shutouts and an .817 save percentage in his first season as a starter.
As Flinn looks to incorporate so many new faces in new roles, he will look to lean on that defensive identity more. "Not that we will set out to develop a team that wins 1-0 games, but simply because that is where the majority of our experience lies – in goal, in the back four (Lich, Johnson, Holquist, Sam Barovick), and in some defensive midfield type players (Ben Brandt, Sahil Modi, Bryce Millington)."
UChicago will look to fill the scoring void after the departure of its top three leading scorers. Sophomore Kyle Ruark is the top returner in points after recording five goals and four assists as a rookie.
"We have attacking guys that can play who are now looking to establish themselves as impact players in this program," Flinn said. "Some of our returning second-year guys will be absolutely crucial if we're going to have a successful season (Ruark, Vicente Mateus, Peyton Lane, Jorge Branco, Jonah Moore). We are going to need the first-years to hit the ground running. We want to control games and win them. Often times this leads to a lot of possession, but only as a means to control the game, not for the sake of saying we like to keep possession."
One of his squad's biggest strengths in Flinn's eyes will be motivation, as the Maroons have emerged as one of the elite programs on the national scene in recent seasons.
"I think this team will be as hungry as any UChicago soccer team has been in a few years," he said. "They have a lot to prove. When you look at the players we lost to graduation, injury, etc., I think this year's team will take a lot of pride in exceeding expectations. The area we will need to improve will be the internal belief that great players develop over time as they achieve success over and over."
With such a young team at his disposal, Flinn is focused on the process of improvement and building a cohesive identity. Those aspects will take time to develop, and he wants his squad to peak when it matters most.
"Our goal as a team this year is to get our level to the point that we can make a legitimate argument that we're playing as well as last year's team did," said Flinn. "There is no timetable for this, other than sometime this fall. Even if that means our very last game, that is the goal we are chasing. If you want to make that about the individual, I think it's very similar. Just keep getting better and see how far you can take that within the season."
The Maroons will challenge themselves right away with one of the nation's toughest schedules this season. Six of their opponents qualified for the 2018 NCAA postseason (University of St. Thomas, Calvin College, University of Rochester, Carthage College, Case Western Reserve University, Carnegie Mellon University). The 18 teams on the docket combined for a .646 winning percentage in 2018.
"There is no one on our schedule that cannot beat us," Flinn said. "That's how it's supposed to be; a match is a test of everything you are working on, and if the gap in level is so significant that the outcome is never in doubt, then what's the point of playing the game?
"We want to win the UAA and put ourselves in a position to win the NCAA tournament. You cannot do either of those without finding ways to consistently beat good teams, so I am grateful that we have a schedule that gives us a chance to prepare for those two goals."