Focusing on defense and remaining even-keeled through the highs and lows of the season, a deep and athletic Linfield squad takes the field with increased physical stamina and maturity, hoping to become more competitive in the Northwest Conference.
Fourth-year head coach Chuck Bechtol and the Wildcats return the vast majority of their offensive weapons, but must perform better at both ends of the pitch to increase the number of victories for the program.
Last season, Linfield lacked a solid foundation on the back line, which made for some serious challenges on the defensive end of the pitch. Collectively the team yielded 38 goals, second most in the league, at an average of two per game. Scoring just 28 times themselves, the Wildcats struggled to win the scoring battle.
“We gave up a lot silly goals that we probably shouldn’t have given up, whether due to bad starting positions, losing our marks or just getting outworked,” Bechtol said.
The defense should be much improved in 2015 with the return of sophomore Aaron Barber-Axthelm, who missed all but seven matches due to injury, and the addition of Dylan Shephard.
“We need to do a better job of keeping our shape, not running all over the place. The two center backs’ ability to communicate with the rest of the group is going to be a big part of our success,” Bechtol said. “That, and being good one-v-one defenders. We defend as a team and as individuals.”
Newcomers Marshall Denley and Christopher Sutton should also factor heavily into Linfield’s defensive scheme. Jorge Rodriguez is back in goal for the Wildcats, providing both veteran experience and great shot-blocking ability as the final line of defense. Bechtol can also turn to capable sophomores Jack O’Keefe, who saw action in 10 matches last season, and Eben Drake-Mudede to protect the net.
Offensively, the ‘Cats return their top three goal scorers, including junior co-captain and all-NWC honorable mention Brian DeGrandmont and sophomores Moi Diaz and Dylan Leathers. Diaz, who totaled a team-high seven goals in 2014, is expected to shoulder the majority of the scoring burden.
“When he gets around the goal, he can score,” Bechtol said.
DeGrandmont, who shares leadership responsibilities with Barber-Axthelm and Alexander Gosselin-Bockel, has both the talent and experience to create scoring opportunities for himself (four goals in 2014) and others (five assists).Gosselin-Bockel is another veteran who can regularly supply offense, while Joey Grachek, whom Bechtol considers the most improved player in the program, enters the year looking to contribute more offense.
Tyler Repic, a three-time all-NWC honoree, is back for his senior season and should he stay healthy, can be another formidable scoring threat. Among the most promising newcomers is Andrew Fischer, who has great upside and a deep understanding of the game.
Linfield is more athletic, but opponents should not overlook how soccer-savvy the Wildcats are, too. Speeding past the defense is not a valuable asset without the added ability to make plays; this team can do both.But where Linfield boasts the greatest improvement is in the depth of its roster, a strength that becomes increasingly valuable as the season progresses.
“We’re able to give a lot of different guys minutes, and take minutes away from those who maybe shouldered more than they should have,” Bechtol said. “Last year we had some guys who were playing the majority of the game and by the end of the season they were really worn down.”
A jam-packed preseason, which includes six matches in 12 days, provides plenty of opportunity for players to demonstrate they deserve to be on the field. Linfield kicks off the Northwest Conference season Sept. 19 with the first of back-to-back home matches against Whitman and Whitworth.