Patience and growing confidence in a new system under first-year head coach Adam Howard eventually paid off in a strong finish for Linfield during the 2016 soccer season. Victories in their final two matches, and three of the last four, spelled redemption for the Wildcats after what was previously a winless campaign.
“I was really proud of the guys and the resiliency they showed all season, to come to practice and have the attitude of getting better each and every day,” Howard said. “The improvements showed at the end of the season, when we were playing our best soccer. We felt like we were peaking at the end of the season, which is what we wanted to do.”
The Wildcats, who finished seventh in the Northwest Conference with a 3-10-1 league record, came tantalizingly close to victory so many times. Of the team’s 10 conference losses, seven were by just a one-goal differential and just two could be considered blowouts, a pair of road losses to Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran by a combined score of 8-2.
“Our captains did a great job of keeping the morale high,” Howard said when reflecting on the losing skein. “The guys felt good about our performances, they just weren’t getting the results. We felt after a lot of games that we had outplayed our opponent and just didn’t get the breaks we needed.”
Led by NWC first team selection and co-team captain Aaron Barber-Axthelm, the defense did its part to keep Linfield competitive from match to match. Isaac Archer, Marshall Denley and Wyatt Lay also logged significant minutes on the back line, while Jorge Rodriguez registered a .711 save percentage in his final season between the goalposts.
Overall, one of the team’s biggest struggles when it came to wins and losses resulted from its failure to put the ball in the net on a consistent basis. The Wildcats’ 15 goals and .066 shot percentages were both league lows, and the team was shut out nine times in 19 contests.
Howard attributed the lack of offense to a learning curve that came with implementing a new formation. While Linfield achieved its goal of being a team no one wanted to play against, due in large part to its field positioning, the downside was an ability to cash in on scoring opportunities.
Starting the second half of the conference season with tactical changes, as well as role and positional adjustments, led to ever-increasing chemistry, familiarity and confidence. And finally, the winning results the ‘Cats had been searching for.
Individually, many Wildcats substantially benefitted from those changes, including senior NWC first team performer Brian DeGrandmont. He scored six times over the final 10 matches, finishing fourth among conference leaders (7) and moving up to No. 6 on the program’s all-time scoring ladder (26).
“Brian really flourished when we moved him to the forward spot, and it also helped him finish the season healthy,” Howard said. “When he started to put the ball in the back of the net, it made things so much easier for everyone else.”
Jake Smith also shifted positions, giving the Wildcats a solid presence in the midfield to win 50/50 balls and connect passes. Fellow midfielder Austin Bebee was a workhorse, covering a lot of ground and contributing in a multitude of ways.
Senior Rhys Lendio, meanwhile, stood out for his creative playmaking abilities.
“His ability to create chances for our team in 1-v-1 opportunities was as good as anyone,” Howard said. “You just knew there was going to be one moment in every game that Rhys was going to create an opportunity for us to score a goal.”
Among the newcomers, freshmen Isaias Flores and Henry Rosenfeld had opportunities to shine and gain experience at the collegiate level, combining for one goal and two assists.
As he looks to expand upon the success of this year, increase the talent level and build a competitive program, Howard can be assured of a positive team mentality.
“It would have been really easy to give in, but that’s just not who we are and not what we’re about,” Howard said. “And they’re just passionate about the game. Their enthusiasm for soccer never changed. The frustration of not winning games can wear on you, but they did a good job of staying the path.”