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It's Real in the Valley

Posted by Robert L. Kehoe III on Oct 17, 2014 0 Comments

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About the Author: Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College. He lives in Madison, WI, with his wife and sons.

Recently, Greg Maas was at the gym with his wife Angie after an encouraging training session. As Maas prepared for his next exercise he stopped, and without realizing it stared off into the distance. Glancing in his direction Angie noticed and asked Greg what was up, to which he said, “I just can’t turn this team off in my head.”

The team is Utah Valley University, and their men’s inaugural season has not been without challenges, but the Wolverines are performing like they’ve been at it for decades.

On the score sheet Utah Valley shot out of a canon with a 5-1 drubbing of UMass in front of nearly three thousand home fans on August, 30. During NSCAATV’s broadcast, the University’s administrators were so impressed they acknowledged that a stadium expansion may already be necessary. Since then there have been a few setbacks, including two 0-1 losses during a weekend in Chicago where inclement weather pushed a Friday match against DePaul to Saturday, forcing UVU to face a tough Loyola team on Sunday, with very little rest.

[+] View Utah Valley vs. UMass Broadcast

But for a first year team the set backs pale in comparison to the successes. At 5-4-1, the Wolverines have gone toe-to-toe with storied programs and top ranked opponents, including #21 Denver (2-1 win), #4 UC Irvine (1-2 loss in overtime), and #24 Seattle (1-1 tie). With results like that the word “surprise” may come to mind, but it appears that Utah Valley is the real deal, and there’s no reason to be surprised.

At first glance, the Wolverines are a collection of very athletic players of all shapes and sizes. But the unifying feature of their personnel is how technically sound they are all over the field, how badly their players want the ball, and how fast they want to keep it moving.

As I’ve written before, Karson Payton and Paul Hoffmeister are the two playmakers that clearly distinguished themselves early in the season. But Utah Valley is not a two-man show, with a replaceable supporting cast.

At 5’9”, you wouldn’t assume that Lucas Cawley should be a dominating physical presence, but he is. Maas says of the freshman from Centerville, Utah that “he is the epitome of a true box to box #8, with the ability to connect to all parts of the field, while impacting the game defensively with his pace, tackling and all out effort.”

Cawley, who’s trialed with both Southampton and Fulham, moves aggressively off the ball and has the vision to link to the wings and attacking positions on the turn of a dime. As Maas points out, he also has “some of the best one on one dribbling ability on our team, but given his role he doesn’t show that part of his game as often as he could.” However, he recently showed this part of his game, which opened some eyes and the scoring against Denver.

On the other end of the spectrum, and size chart, Skyler Milne is a hulk at 6’4”, with the build of a BYU tight end. If you didn’t know he played soccer, you’d probably guess he’s strapping on shoulder pads and a helmet on Saturday afternoons in Provo. But when you see how soft his feet are, how well he can control and play out of pressure – as a back, defensive or attacking midfielder – while being a major goal scoring threat on set pieces, you realize there’s a lot more to the sophomore than a blunt combination of athleticism and size.

Specifically, Maas spoke of Milne’s capacity for growth, improving his application of technique and tactical awareness with every game. And for a big man, he is far from a bruiser collecting cautions. Milne has only acquired one yellow card in ten matches, while being an intimidating force, which shows he can manage his size and strength to good effect. For Maas, if he continues to improve in his time at UVU then there’s no reason Milne can’t also, “improve and thrive at the next level.”

Individually, the Wolverines can all play. But where they’ve been most impressive is in their work as a team. Typically, even the most talented young programs will struggle in their organization and defending. However, UVU has only given up 8 goals in ten matches, which is a testament to the fine work of Maas, and associate head coach, Matt Ellinger.

Photo: Karson Payton celebrates after scoring a goal (photo credit: Linsey Craig)

When asked about Maas, Real Salt Lake president Bill Manning offered his wholehearted approval. “UVU definitely hired the right coach, and I recommended Greg for that position knowing that he would be an ideal fit.”

Thus far Manning’s assessment has been spot on, with Maas building a grass roots community of support and a recruiting base for the last two years. Without playing a competitive match he and Ellinger had such a deep understanding of Utah soccer they weren’t scrambling to fill a roster with adequate players, they were recruiting the right people. All of which has allowed the Wolverines to focus on their pursuit of excellence, which speaks to the professional appreciation of culture and preparation both coaches bring to the table.

Maas and Ellinger also have ties to Real Salt Lake, (Ellinger’s father John was the MLS franchise’s first manager), and coincidentally, when I asked UVU’s staff about the core values of Utah soccer they focused on the same thing that Manning said of RSL; “family.”

According to Ellinger, a lot of that stems from Utah’s Mormon roots, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s (LDS) emphasis on cultivating strong family ties. But in building a soccer family, he pointed to how the LDS community’s emphasis on the work of global missions means that many of Utah’s citizens are very well traveled, and had gained exposure to soccer long before it became popular in the United States.

“Utah has an unbelievable soccer community, where fans know to look for the right things and show their support for good movement out of the back, more than the one off bicycle kick. Our fans have been no different, and a lot of people have said it didn’t look like it was our first game against UMass, but from our perspective, it didn’t look like it was our fans first game either.”

Averaging well over 2000 supporters a match, the fans at Clyde Field, led by the famous Green Man Group, have had plenty of quality moves out of the back to acknowledge, and the Wolverines have given them plenty to cheer about with their playmaking ability around the field.

In speaking with the two the of key playmakers, Hoffmeister and Payton, both expressed how grateful they were to be playing in such a unique and exciting environment. But more than anything they shared how much they trusted their coaching staff and each other.

Both have aspirations to play professionally, and both have played in youth academy systems (Payton with RSL, and Hoffmeister with Fortuna Dusseldorf). As Payton said, knowing Maas and Ellinger as coaches through RSL made it very easy to commit to UVU. In speaking to the possibility of playing on RSL’s senior team one day he said, “I’d love to play for them, but they have so many good players so I just hope that I get a chance with the right team that plays the right system for me.”

Still, for all of Payton’s humility, Manning says that RSL is delighted to have Division 1 men’s college soccer in their backyard, and believes Maas and Ellinger are well situated to prepare players for the pro ranks. “Greg is a very good coach who’s worked with our youth teams at RSL, and was terrific in his role as director of Utah Youth Soccer. Because of how well we know him he as credibility with our organization on a variety of levels.” Obviously there are no guarantees for any players, but Manning says that he’s excited to provide opportunities for top UVU performers at the USL and MLS level when they fit RSL’s style of play and club culture.

And while there may be Wolverines with professional aspirations, visiting with Payton and Hoffmeister proves that the virtues of athletic amateurism at the college level are not completely lost. The former Fortuna Dusseldorf prospect says he’s fascinated by international business and has always enjoyed applying his aptitude in mathematics. And the Utah native says he chose to study psychology because he wanted to better understand and speak to the pain and suffering he witnessed in the lives of those he spent time with on mission in Argentina.

Furthermore, when Hoffmeister’s family recently visited UVU, getting their first taste of college soccer in America, they were amazed to see the game played at such a high level while students were able to pursue a degree in higher education. More than anything, they were impressed by how at home they felt, and how grateful they were that their son had been so warmly accepted into a new family so far away from his native Germany.

All of which contributes to UVU’s remarkable showing in their wins and draws. And in defeat, the Wolverine’s are yet to lose by more than one goal, have yet to concede more than two in a match, with a plus five differential on the season.

Again, if you just think of Utah Valley as a first year team, their results, confidence and swagger may be hard to believe. But when you put it all together, it isn’t so surprising after all.

When Skyler Milne walked off the field last Sunday, after a hard fought 0-1 loss to UNLV, Maas saw something different in his eyes than an expected sense of disappointment. Approaching Milne later on, he asked what the young man was thinking, to which he said; “coach, this is the first team I’ve ever been a part of where I’m never afraid of who we’re playing against.”

And with that, it’s easy to see why Utah Valley is the real deal, and why Greg Maas probably won’t be able to turn them off in his head any time soon.

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