Charleston (West Virgina) men’s soccer program has been knocking on the door for the past few seasons. The Golden Eagles first reached the finals in 2014, falling to Lynn 3-2, before returning to the national semifinals last year, only to be ousted by the reigning national champion Pfeiffer in the semi-finals by a score of 2-1.
To say that the bar is set high for the 2016 rendition of the Golden Eagles may be an understatement. While the end goal is clear, the philosophy is what these lads strive to maintain.
“We focus on the game in front of us,” Charleston (WV) head coach Chris Grassie said. “We talk about a culture of excellence in the classroom and on the field and being a gentlemen in the community.”
Grassie has built Charleston into a national powerhouse on the DII soccer scene since taking the helm in 2011. The Mountain East Coach of the Year the past two-consecutive seasons became the program’s winningest coach in history last year on the heels of winning the conference tournament, a feat he has accomplished in each of his five seasons as head coach. Despite all of the accolades and wins, there is still one that he is searching for at UC-- that elusive national championship title.
While many familiar faces return, Grassie lost six pivotal starters from last season, including All-American defenseman Conor Branson. While the feel and look of the team may be somewhat different to spectators, it hasn’t changed the drive in the locker room and on the field.
Despite losing a star defender in him on the field, Branson has returned on the sidelines as part of the coaching staff. Grassie now has Branson to help as the core of his solid defense returns. This core's importance to the team remains so apparent that the returning defenders are serving as this season’s captains. Defensemen Jake Young — a All-MEC First Team a year ago — and Bruno Oliveira — an All-MEC Second Team in 2015 — hold down the opposing drives while veteran keeper and 2016 All-MEC second teamer Fabian Veit provides the last line of defense in net.
“It was massive to have those guys back,” Grassie said. “They went through 2013 with us. We had a strong finish, but we just didn’t click. We weren’t coming together as a group, and we weren’t buying into what the coaching staff and players wanted to do. When we did, those guys saw a massive turn up in results, and we got stronger and stronger from that point. They’ve been through all the highs and lows with us, and they’ve really invested as much as anybody else in the success of the program. So, they are ambassadors of the way we do things. They’ve added to the program, and they’ve championed what we do. So, the new guys listen to them. They have been a pleasure to coach for four years.”
The offensive attack is led by returning All-American Will Roberts. Hailing from Wales, England, Roberts adds another cultural element to a roster that Grassie has blended with many diverse cultures. The Golden Eagles come from far and wide — everywhere from England to Germany to Brazil and even Ghana — to combine as a united front.
"We constantly talk about soccer and how it seems that everybody shares this game, whether you are in Germany, or England or Africa,” Grassie continued. “You know who Pele was. You know who Maradona was. You know about the World Cup. We all share this history. I talk to the guys about Pele, and I grew up watching videos of him. But then, so did they. Does Pele belong to Brazil, or does he belong to all of us?”
Roberts has been red hot to start the season. After finishing 2015 second in the nation with 21 goals, he has already put 10 goals in the net, which is the best in DII so far. He has won consecutive MEC Offensive Player of the Week Awards as he leads the nation’s No. 3 scoring attack.
“It's been a great start to the season, personally and as a team,” Roberts said. “Coach Grassie set goals for me this preseason and has worked hard alongside Daniel Stratford pushing me towards reaching them this fall. I'm delighted to be leading the nation in total goals this season. However, the credit should go to my teammates who allow me to have so many opportunities on goal. The understanding between myself and players, like Patrick Guier, allowed me to finish second in DII soccer for total goals last season. And, the connection is only stronger this year, so hopefully, as a team, we can push for the top.”
“Will [Roberts] is a fantastically important player for us,” Grassie added. “He’s deceptive. He could be out of a game for 85 minutes and still score a hat trick. His movement is so good. He makes good runs. He can be kept under wraps then all of a sudden you just can’t keep a hold of him.”
As Roberts mentioned, he is not alone up front on the attack. Senior Felipe Antonio has been on fire of late as well, scoring four goals in his past three games while assisting on another. Newcomers to the starting rotation Freddie Tracey and Williams N’Dah have also chipped in while second-year senior forward Jermaine Windster seems to be getting more comfortable in the attack as well.
“Teams will focus on Will Roberts,” Grassie said. “But then Felipe Antonio will step up. Patrick Guier will step up. Freddie Tracey will step up. It’s nice to have him because other teams have to worry about him, and that allows our other players to come in.”
Roberts has become more comfortable in his role. It is one that has seen him score three go-ahead winning goals in Charleston’s six wins. He knows that he has the ability to score at will, but what makes it seem easier is, with the depth of scoring talent on the Golden Eagles, he knows he doesn’t need to.
“I wouldn't say I personally feel pressure when it comes to scoring,” Roberts said. “As an attacking player, you thrive on game-winning goals and helping your team. So, if my teammates look towards me in times of need, then I'll give everything I can to not let them down. We have so much depth this season going forward that if I'm having an off day, I can rely on one of my teammates to step up and score a goal or two, which is great because there are constantly players competing against each other to be in the starting eleven and could be the key to our successful campaign.”
There is still much work to be done as the MEC schedule is essentially just getting under way. The Golden Eagles are a perfect 2-0 in their conference thus far, defeating Urbana and West Virginia Wesleyan by a combined score of 13-1, highlighted by a Roberts hat trick and N’Dah’s coming out party, as he scored four goals in two games. This week starts a tough road trip against Concord and then Notre Dame College (Ohio) before returning home to a much anticipated matchup with Wheeling Jesuit, the team that handed UC their only two regular season defeats in 2015.
While last season saw many familiar faces depart, the conclusion of the 2016 season will see even more of this UC team leave the program. 2017 will be a transition year, as the seniors leaving look to the underclassmen to continue the identity they built in the national spotlight for the Golden Eagles program. That’s why Grassie would love his No. 1 ranked UC team to finally grab that championship-- not for the trophy or the acclaim, but to honor those that have worked so hard to make UC arguably the best program in the nation the past few years.
“It would be awesome,” Grassie said of winning the National Championship with this group. “You can’t put it into words. It’s been four years in the making, and we’ve come so close. We’ve definitely shed a few tears together. August is a fantastic time because you see the smiles on their faces, and you can finally put the previous season behind them. If we could just have that relief of winning it, if Bronson could be part of it as a staff member, I think it will mean a lot to the guys who went to two final fours and graduated. They all email back, and they want us to do it. These guys put a lot into the program. It would mean a lot to the seniors, but a lot to the guys who laid the foundation and the building blocks of the program.”