AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Portland – Can Pilots Fly Back To Top of WCC?

Kendall Johnson

Portland & Kendall Johnson Will Be Hoping for A Return to The Top in 2012

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings | Coaching Changes

Big Sky | DI Independents | Great West | SWAC

ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco

Portland’s rabid support probably wondered how it could get any worse after 2010’s unfathomable conclusion in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Another season on, and the Pilots are probably hoping that 2011 represented rock bottom for a proud program that suddenly is engulfed in uncertainty. While many of the main principles for Portland in their 2010 season have since moved on, you could argue that the horrors of the season finale have lingered over the club like a black cloud.

Chief amongst the bad luck for UP was the spring injury to star full-back Kendall Johnson that only compounded the worries going into the new year after the club was shattered by graduation losses. Johnson was a member of the Pilots squad that had entered that fateful second round NCAA Tournament match with a high seed and home advantage against a Washington team that had been little more than a speed bump in recent seasons…well, OK, almost every season. But astute followers would have noted that Portland had had a bit of trouble with the Huskies earlier in the regular season, only managing to topple UW in extra time.

Nobody believed the Pilots were going to face elimination though from their regional rivals. But after a brilliant goalkeeping display by the opposition and one of the craziest penalty shootouts in NCAA Tournament history, Portland were out in one of the biggest early round upsets in the history of the Big Dance. It was a low point for a club that entered 2011 having not lost a league match in four full seasons and that had won six of seven league titles. But Portland had also seen diminishing results in NCAA Tournament play, with the 2010 defeat ranking among the most stunning exits for the club.

Portland first rose to prominence under the watchful eye of the legendary and late Clive Charles, reaching their first College Cup in 1994 and making the next two, though they’d be stopped in their tracks by Notre Dame each time. North Carolina would topple Portland in the 1998 College Cup in an extra time match settled only after four periods of extra time. After missing the Big Dance in 1999, Portland would again suffer heartbreak in 2000 and 2001 in the national semi-finals to UCLA and North Carolina. At long last though, Portland would get their national title, in a typically exciting double overtime win over WCC rivals Santa Clara. It was also profoundly special as the world would lose Charles far too soon to prostate cancer just a year later.

Garrett Smith had the unenviable task of taking the mantle at the head of the UP program and Portland were eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen in his first season in charge, the team’s worst finish since missing the NCAA Tournament in 1999. Smith would get redemption in 2005 though, beating Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, Penn State in the Final Four, and then destroying UCLA in the final, 4-0, to deliver Portland’s second title. It’s largely been frustrating since then in the Big Dance. The team had exited at the Elite Eight in four straight seasons before 2010’s woe, including three times by old rivals UCLA.

Portland’s shocking exit in the NCAA Tournament largely overshadowed another brilliant regular season, with the club suffering just one defeat, to Pac-10 power Stanford and only one other blemish, a shock regular season draw with St. Mary’s (CA) on the last day of the regular season.

Smith and the Pilots entered 2011 having not made it back to the Final Four since 2005 and looked unlikely to break that streak with a large scale personnel shuffle throughout the lineup. Still, the Pilots reminded America of their quality right off the bat with a 2-1 win over national title contenders Florida State, following that up with another solid win against Washington State. But the cracks that appeared for Portland were sudden and violent. Losing to San Diego State was a shock, but nothing could’ve prepared Pilots supporters for the following fixture.

Minnows Seattle, still making the transition to full DI status, looked to be an easy way for Portland to get back on track but instead pulled off one of the biggest regular season upsets in recent memory, beating the Pilots handily, 2-0. The funk extended to a three game losing streak with a loss to Boston University two days later. A club that hadn’t lost three games in a single season since 2007 had suddenly lost that many in eight days. The misery continued with a draw against Washington in an emotional fixture after 2010 before the Pilots finally got back on track with a win against Oregon State.

The team would only win two of their next six though, and defeats to UC Irvine, BYU, and San Diego not only put their WCC title hopes in jeopardy but also their NCAA Tournament hopes. With five matches left, the Pilots were hovering towards the unthinkable, and missing out on the Big Dance. Scant title hopes in the league were fully washed away in a 2-1 defeat to arch-rivals Santa Clara, with Portland missing two penalties in the process. The Pilots needed to win and win big down the stretch to stand a chance on Selection Monday and did so in large part, winning three of four but also dropping the match that would’ve guaranteed their ticket to the NCAA Tournament had they won, losing 2-1 to Pepperdine.

Fifth in the league made for unpleasant viewing for supporters, but some of the club’s big wins in non-conference play, along with their challenging schedule before WCC play saw them get the nod from the selection committee despite finishing the regular season at .500. There’d be penalty redemption on a rainy night in Corvallis in the first round, as Portland won another lengthy shootout, this time downing a fancied Oregon State side on spot kicks after a 1-1 draw.

Round two offered up another rematch for the Pilots, as they headed out east to face off against the Florida State team they had beaten on opening night. These Noles bore no resemblance to the August group though, as the ACC Tournament champions had a relatively easy time against the Pilots, going up 3-0 by the hour mark before being pegged back for a goal late on.

It marked the second straight second round exit from the NCAA Tournament for the Pilots, though Portland fans were probably able to swallow this one a little more easily after the tumultuous regular season that had led up to it. Less easy to swallow was the club’s all too apparent decline in 2011. One off, or the beginning of an unpalatable trend?

One thing’s for sure: there’s no way Portland can be hit as hard as they were by graduation and injuries last season. The Pilots appear to have avoided the Spring injury bug for the most part, while club doesn’t lose a cadre of all-stars like they did before last year either. Still, the club loses five of the thirteen players that started nine or more games last season, meaning Smith has some work to do to reconfigure the lineup into one that can contend with the elite of the WCC.

Particularly worrisome is the club’s situation up front. While the stat sheet shows that the Pilots scored two goals a game against league foes, a closer examination shows that the club scored ten of those against St. Mary’s (CA) and Gonzaga, scoring just six goals against the league’s other six clubs. Leading scorer and attacking enigma Danielle Foxhoven departs after an eight goal senior season.

That pain could be compounded early on if Micaela Capelle makes the U.S. U20 World Cup roster after featuring as a bench option for much of the last year. Capelle was well off her freshman pace but still managed five goals for the Pilots last season and would be a big blow if she’s gone for that first month of the season.

The loss of Capelle would be harmful in another way as well: squad depth. The Pilots, as of press time, have just eighteen players on their 2012 roster, including five freshmen. Though Portland will aim to make the versatility of their playing staff pay off for them, it also might just take one bad break to throw their season into peril.

Goalkeepers

Portland has had problems in filling the spot in goal with a consistent performer ever since the graduation of the excellent Kelsey Davis. Last season was little different, as the Pilots juggled three keepers early before settling on graduated senior Hailee DeYoung for almost all of the second half of the season. DeYoung endured a stop-start career with the club early on, starting five games as a freshman before redshirting in 2008. DeYoung wouldn’t see an extended run as the club’s starter until 2010 when she won All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits after starting eleven matches. Though she never hit the heights of some of the club’s great goalkeepers of the past, DeYoung did enough to maintain a strong grip of the job for most of her senior year last season.

Battling for the starting job this season will be junior Erin Dees and sophomore Nichole Downing. Dees would appear to have the upper hand going into the new year having racked up thirteen games of starting experience through two seasons thus far. Dees ended up splitting time with DeYoung for most of 2010 before taking a back seat to the veteran after a few starts early last season.

Downing redshirted as a rookie in 2010 before starting the matches against Boston University and Oregon State (regular season) last year. Given that Smith hasn’t hesitated to use every option available to him these past few seasons, it seems pretty likely that we’ll see both Dees and Downing at some point this season. One has to emerge as a top stopper though for the Pilots to stand a chance of moving back up the WCC ladder.

Defenders

Portland’s defense was roughly middle of the road last season, not bad enough to lump them in with the dregs of the league but well off the pace of the title contenders. There was a lot of mixing and matching last season, and that trend could continue this year with the loss of a fair number of players in defense for the Pilots. The physical Michelle Olivier never quite reached the heights some expected coming into Portland but was still a solid four-year starter on both the backline and at defensive midfielder at times. Olivier started all but one game as a senior, and her experience could be hard to replace right off the bat.

A more unexpected, and potentially more damaging, loss is that of sophomore Cloee Colohan. A former U.S. U20 captain, Colohan had endured a slow start to her college career, missing most of 2009 through injury before blossoming as a key cog of the club’s defense in 2010. Though she was hobbled again by some injuries last season, Colohan was still quality when on the pitch, and her transfer to league rivals BYU for personal reasons is a big blow for this defense.

Depth takes some hits as well through graduation. Kassi McCluskie looked to be on her way towards being a mainstay on the backline after starting nineteen games as a center-back as a rookie but couldn’t stay in the lineup for long stretches of the following three years and almost missed the entire second half of last season while making seven starts as a senior. Also gone is full-back Emma Nelson, who had been a reserve for three seasons before being pressed into starting duty last season, cracking the first XI four times, though she, like McCluskie, missed most of the stretch run of the season.

Smith has plenty of options to work with but few out and out stars coming into the new season. Senior Taylor Brooke had a breakout season in 2010 with four goals and five assists in nineteen starts and looked to be one of the club’s rising stars heading into the new season. She didn’t end up building on that offensive total but still finished second on the team in assists with three, also pulling down All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits. Brooke figures to be one of club’s senior stalwarts this season and will have to be a rock considering the depth of the losses.

Hometown product Sarah Bridges also figures to be an important figure in defense as a junior this season. One of the club’s top reserves as a rookie in 2010, Bridges fought her way into the starting lineup last season, starting seventeen games for the Pilots in her sophomore season. Given some of the potential youth in this unit and the squad as a whole, Bridges’ experience could be a big boost for Portland this season.

Minutes could also be on the rise for sophomore Lorielle McCluskie, sister of departed defender Kassi. The younger McCluskie bounced in and out of the lineup at times last season but still finished with four starts in eleven appearances and figures to be called into duty more often this season given the club’s departures.

What makes or breaks Portland’s defense in 2012 though might be the healthy return of junior left-back Kendall Johnson. Tipped as a potential future member of the USWNT at the problematic full-back position, Johnson put on some dazzling displays at both youth international level for the U.S. and at collegiate level at Portland, where she was WCC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2009 and has been twice honored with All-WCC Second Team honors. Johnson tore her ACL in the Spring of 2011 though, and her loss from the already rebuilding ranks of the Portland defense was a hammer blow. Word is that Johnson was doing just fine for the club in the Spring of this season, and the hometown heroine’s return will provide an incalculable boost for the Pilots if she can replicate and build on the form of her first two seasons with the club.

Portland also brings in a cadre of rookies this season, including center-back Haylee DeGrood, a defender more than comfortable with the ball at her feet who was a mainstay on the Region IV ODP team these past few years and could be thrust into the fire right away for the Pilots this year. Sophomore midfielder Rebekah Kurle and junior midfielders Michelle Cruz and Ellen Parker could also see action in defense for the Pilots this season in a diverse and versatile group.

On the whole, Portland’s defense looks solid, with the potential to be pretty good if Johnson is up to full speed by season’s start. As is the case with the whole squad though, depth is a question, with an injury or two likely to cause problems.

Midfielders

In addition to losing Colohan, who also played as the club’s midfield stopper at times, Portland must also bid farewell to the energetic and versatile Halley Kreminski. Kreminski, who also played up front for the club at times during her collegiate career, had a real star turn as a sophomore, scoring ten goals, with most of them coming in the league. The Idaho native struggled to stay in the lineup on a full-time basis a season later but still scored seven times despite starting just seven matches. Kreminski ended up starting about half of the club’s game’s during her senior season last year but was kept quiet offensively in midfield as others picked up the scoring slack, with the veteran not recording a point in 2011.

The returning options in midfield are solid if unspectacular. Junior U20 international Michelle Cruz appears to be the unit’s top dog going into the new season. Cruz was quite impressive as a rookie in 2010 with three goals and two assists in twelve starts, earning All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits for her trouble. Cruz would stick in the lineup full-time last season but couldn’t build on the offensive showing of 2010, with just a single goal, though it was the winner in the rout against St. Mary’s (CA), and two assists. The Californian is still a fine player though and should be a lineup mainstay again this season, either in midfield or defense.

Classmate and fellow youth international Ellen Parker also hammered down a starting spot last season and had some great moments down the stretch with the winner in the must win regular season finale against Gonzaga and the assist on Portland’s goal against Oregon State in the NCAA Tournament. With five goals and four assists in two seasons, the Arizona native isn’t a huge offensive threat but showed last season she can deliver in the clutch.

Sophomore Rebekah Kurle was impressive last season as a rookie, with her 5’10” frame allowing her to be some much needed muscle in the middle. Kurle started thirteen games last season, winning All-WCC Freshman Team honors and figures to be in the starting lineup full-time this season and with her size, could slot in as a center-back if the club needs her there. Another of last year’s rookies, Emily Sippel, was arguably the class’ prized recruit but ended up struggling to crack the starting lineup last season, making just four starts. The sophomore tallied just one point in her debut, and much better will be needed given the relative short numbers in depth for the unit.

Defender Brooke could also see time in midfield for the Pilots if needed this season, while junior Amanda Frisbie could likewise slot into the attacking midfield role if the two striking spots are filled and the club needs more attacking oomph in the middle of the park. Portland has a solid group in midfield, with a good degree of starting experience, but there don’t appear to be any stars on the horizon in this bunch. Considering the spotty offensive record of most of the returnees, this group may have problems supporting the attack with goals this year.

Forwards

The loss of Foxhoven looms large for a side that has been up and down in front of goal for the past few seasons. Foxhoven looked like joining Portland’s list of great scorers after two incredible seasons to begin her collegiate career. Foxhoven burst onto the season with sixteen goals as a rookie before following that up with a ridiculous twenty-five goal, twelve assist campaign as a sophomore. And then, abruptly, the goals didn’t come quite as easily for the Colorado native. Though Foxhoven still raked in the plaudits in 2010, she only netted eight times in a down season.

Unfortunately for Portland, it proved to be the beginning of a trend, as Foxhoven scored just eight again last year. The senior appeared to have gotten her groove back with two goals in the opener against Florida State and five in the team’s first seven matches but then scored just three goals in the club’s final fourteen games, while missing three penalties on the season. The loss of form was bad enough in 2010, but with the club having to replace so much star power elsewhere, Foxhoven’s struggles in front of goal really took its toll on the club’s offense. Kreminski, another outlet of goals for the club for much of her time in Portland, also departs from the list of potential attackers.

The spearhead of this year’s attack will be junior Micaela Capelle. As stated above though, Capelle’s also in the running for a spot on the U.S. U20 World Cup team, and if the Gresham native makes the roster, it could leave Portland in a world of hurt offensively for the first month or so of the season. Capelle was a bright spot offensively in 2010, debuting with eight goals and five assists in a great rookie season.

With raised expectations and more attention from defenses, Capelle didn’t quite hit those heights last year but recovered after a slow start to the season to score five goals in league play, including one in each of the club’s first four WCC matches. She’ll be the clear focus of the offense this season and needs to replicate that league form this year for Portland to contend.

Who partners Capelle up front could be an interesting battle. Frisbie looks like a prime contender after eleven combined goals in her first two seasons with the club, tying for the team lead in game winning goals last season with three. Frisbie was very streaky last season though, scoring her goals in bunches more often than not and then going cold. The junior could also be used in the hole behind two strikers as an attacking midfielder if Smith is looking for more offensive options in midfield.

Another option is junior Kaila Cameli, a star during her one season at JUCO level for Phoenix College before transferring to Portland before last year. Cameli had problems acclimating early on though, going without a point until mid-October where she started to come on for the Pilots. A hat trick against St. Mary’s (CA) was the highlight, and Cameli was much better down the stretch, but she still only scored one more goal in 2011, against woeful San Francisco. The jury remains out on whether she can be a big time contributor at this level, but Portland needs her to at least be a solid secondary option to help take heat off of Capelle.

The big hope for the future, and perhaps the present, is true freshman Devlyn Jeter, a U18 international and this class’ top prospect for Portland. A hulking 6’0″, Jeter has been touted as a versatile prospect by Smith, though given the concerns up top, the rookie seems likely to terrorize WCC defenses this year.

So much for Portland this season depends on Capelle. While losing her for the first month of the season to international duty wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal blow, it would potentially put the offense between a rock and a hard place early on. Beyond Capelle, the other forward options are inconsistent (Frisbie), unproven (Cameli), and inexperienced (Jeter). While one or more of those options could still make a big breakthrough, you get the feeling Portland may be very dependent on the goals of Capelle this season.

Outlook

This Portland side doesn’t have the look of world beaters and probably aren’t going to contend for major honors, but there’s plenty of talent here to get them back into the NCAA Tournament without sweating down the stretch as much as they did last season. The defense looks solid with Johnson potentially making the group one of the league’s best should she return on form. Going forward, there are many more questions, with the club on paper looking very reliant on Capelle for goals. Secondary options are going to have to have a breakout season for the Pilots’ offense to keep ticking over, more so if Capelle is gone for the first month of the year.

In that regard, the midfield might have to up its game considerably, with that group looking more steady than explosive on paper. The biggest concern though could be with depth. With just eighteen players, Portland is certainly walking a tightrope. If Capelle is gone for the U20 World Cup, the club will have fifteen field players for the first month of the season, and that’s if injuries don’t hit. Considering some of the club’s recent history, going injury free is far from certain for the Pilots.

If they stay healthy though, Portland looks like a club that could finish in the upper-mid table region of the WCC with a puncher’s chance of shocking the favorites for a league title. Progressing deep into the NCAA Tournament looks like a difficult proposition though unless they get some breaks in the bracket. That might cause some angst amongst the Pilot faithful, but a star studded recruiting class next year along with just one senior being on this year’s squad might make this the last lean year for a while in Portland.

One thought on “AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Portland – Can Pilots Fly Back To Top of WCC?

  1. Jayne

    You are one of the hardest workers on the web, Chris, and I commend you. But this is yet another whiff on your part, like picking BYU last year. Portland has been lacking overall speed since Lopez and Angie left. Pilots will be merely a so-so program for years to come.

    Reply

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