A hot start to the Northwest Conference season quickly tempered, and despite incremental improvement of a young team and some moments of brilliance, the 2014 season culminated in a seventh-place finish for the Linfield men’s soccer program.
Growing pains were undoubtedly expected for a majority-underclassmen roster, but the team had talent, which made for a somewhat dissatisfying end to the year.
“We played some great soccer at times, but didn’t always get rewarded. And when we made mistakes we got punished,” said head coach Chuck Bechtol. “From a physical point of view we did everything we needed to do, but from a mental aspect in terms of correcting mistakes we weren’t as good as we should have been.”
Despite finishing with a 6-11 record, including 4-9-1 against league foes, the ‘Cats were competitive in most matches. Of the nine conference losses, five were by a single score and in three of those matches, Linfield managed to score at least once.
High hopes followed a season-opening trip to eastern Washington, in which the Wildcats tied eventual league champion Whitworth 1-1 and topped Whitman 2-1 in overtime. But in its return home, Linfield squandered a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to Pacific Lutheran before giving up five goals in a blowout to Puget Sound.
Lineup inconsistencies played a major factor in Linfield’s season of fits and starts, preventing the team from being able to generate or sustain much momentum. Battling attrition in the form of injuries, the Wildcats had a different starting lineup nearly every match, and two of its most important players – centerbacks Aaron Barber-Axthelm and Kainalu Kealoha – never played a minute together. Without a solid or consistent backbone, Linfield struggled to advance upfield.
There is always a silver lining, however. The numerous injuries gave several younger players key minutes and unexpected opportunities to contribute, most notably Miguel Garcia and Jack O’Keefe. The latter, who made six starts in goal, finished with a 3.12 goals-against average, but made 41 saves, including four penalty kicks.
Dylan Leathers was another newcomer who made significant contributions, totaling three goals – including two game winners – in 13 starts.
“Dylan was our wild card,” Bechtol said. “He sometimes struggles technically, but will run through a wall for you.”
Fellow rookies Moi Diaz and Alexander Gosselin significantly increased the talent level of the program. Diaz totaled a team-high seven goals, tied for fourth most among conference leaders, and Gosselin provided athleticism as well as two scores while starting all 18 matches.
Returners Jake Baker (three goals) and Brian DeGrandmont (four goals, team-high five assists) served as team leaders and serious offensive threats en route to all-Northwest Conference honors.
“Brian was our best player all year long,” Bechtol said. “He worked his tail off. His work rate and ability to compete are very good.”
On the whole, Linfield made gains in several areas, including passing but struggled mentally in a way Bechtol referred to as a “failure to recognize” certain situations on the field. This can be improved through maturity – Linfield remains a young program with 20 underclassmen – but also through a commitment to bringing increased energy the second half of the back-to-back weekends that make up the conference calendar.
“We’re making headway with the culture,” Bechtol said, citing the team’s chemistry and attitude as positive takeaways. As long as that trend continues, and Linfield’s youth mature into more confident and competent threats, expect a few more breaks to fall the Wildcats’ way in future seasons.