In returning three of its top five goal scorers from a season ago while increasing depth in all positions, Linfield aims to continue its upward progression in the Northwest Conference.
Head coach coach Chuck Bechtol big ambitions for Linfield in his third season at the helm: a top-three finish in the league, something the Wildcats have not achieved since the 2005 season.
Linfield remains a young club, featuring a roster 2/3 comprised of underclassmen, many of which are expected to assume key starting roles. But the Wildcats also have a core group of veterans on hand to provide leadership, and Linfield’s youth raise the level of talent on the field.
“We’ve added some very nice pieces in the incoming freshmen and transfers, and I think we’ve got very good chemistry going on,” Bechtol said.
Sophomore Brian DeGrandmont returns as a dangerous scoring threat along with upperclassmen Jake Baker and Ivan Colin. Rhys Lendio enters the year as one of the most improved players in the program. Freshman Moi Diaz and junior-college transfer Alexander Gosselin are two of the most promising new offensive weapons.
One of Linfield’s greatest overall strengths lies in its versatility, and that, combined with improved depth and a style of play focused on short passes, means the Wildcats have far more options when it comes to attacking in their offensive third.
“A lot of teams we play against want to get the ball down and kick it as far as they can,” Bechtol said. “We’re the opposite: we want the ball down on the ground where we can play. Our ability to move off the ball and our speed of play has gotten better.”
On the opposite end of the pitch, Jorge Rodriguez and Grant Loriaux return in goal, and the Wildcats enjoy increased depth at the keeper position via freshmen Eben Drake-Mudede and Jack O’Keefe.
An influx of talented Wildcats should aid returners Chris Musser and Wyatt Lay in making the defense more formidable. Aaron Barber-Axthelm has quickly emerged as a young, but confident, leader that can provide much-needed communication and organization on the back line.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Bechtol said of Barber-Axthelm. “He does his job, tackles balls, wins balls and distributes well out of the back.”
Jake Smith enters his second season with added strength. Newcomers Eli Peckham, Isaac Archer and Brandon Brooks should also log important minutes. Solidifying the back line, particularly finding a second center back position to play alongside Barber-Axthelm, is paramount for the Wildcats if they are to make moves in the league.
To be successful, Linfield must also play bigger than the roster suggests. The ‘Cats have just two field players listed at 6-foot or taller, which means the team must really work as a unit as opposed to relying on one or two dominant go-to players.
The league’s coaching staff picked a championship season for Whitworth, Linfield’s first opponent once the NWC schedule gets underway. On the whole, the eight clubs graduated many key players, but the upper echelon of the conference remains a tough group to break into.
Linfield has shown to be more competitive against the league’s top teams in recent years, and with a few more victories, should continue to gain respect in the Northwest Conference.