SPORTS

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September 21, 2009

Low turnover has Chicago hopeful for 2009

There are a lot of familiar faces on the pitch for Chicago this fall. Turnover from last season was low, and as Wiercinski put it, the Maroons "really have the same team" from a year ago, "plus freshmen."

The benefits there are clear: The continuity makes for better chemistry amongst a more experienced corps of players. But those who recognize players from last year will no doubt remember last season's lows, as well. By any measure, Chicago's offense was among the weakest in the UAA, and the Maroons' season closed with a 0–4 skid (part of an overall 5–10–3 record, 1–5–1 in conference).

"Last season we could not threaten their goal as a team," third-year midfielder Kenzo Manners said, recalling the difficulties of the 2008 team, which was held scoreless in eight out of eighteen games. As Manners pointed out, Chicago has players—like third-year forward Alex Clifford—who have offensive talent to spare and often threatened individually, but the sustained, team-based attack was missing.

All of which begs the question: Will this be the old team with a whole new collection of tricks, or just the same old team?

With the season now well under way, Wiercinski and his squad have to be thinking it's the first. There was, after all, that auspicious start in Italy—for 10 days, the Maroons' training ground this preseason—where Chicago scored eight times in three games.

And lest that showing were written off as an aberration, Chicago fired off 26 shots against Augustana in their season opener back home—“a tremendous number,” in Wiercinski’s words. The final score there was 2–1 Maroons, a long-awaited win (that didn’t look half as close on the pitch as it did on the scoreboard) for a team that already appeared much improved.

For an explanation of the team’s improvements, Manners pointed to the team’s work during the past months and its improved focus this year. Wiercinski also complimented his team’s focus and said that the seasoned players’ understanding of Chicago’s game gave the whole squad a jump on its preparation for the fall.

“Last year, we spent a lot of time trying to find ourselves, in terms of what particular players and their roles were, who's going to do this, who's going to do that,” Wiercinski said. “I think this year, it feels like we're a year ahead. And it’s a world of difference in terms of speed of play, training attitude.”

While the offense was looking set, the matter of Chicago’s starting keeper remained unsettled—a situation Wiercinski said didn’t bother him at all. After second-year Chris Giusto got the majority of the starts between the posts last year, third-year Steve Baron played the full ninety against Augustana. Five days later, Giusto was back in goal for a 2–1 loss to 19th-ranked Dominican.

“They're both fit, they both are playing really well,” Wiercinski said of his keepers, “so from a coach's position, I feel really confident in the position, regardless of who’s playing.”

For all the strides the veteran Maroons have made, the team’s greatest upside lies with its first-years, several of whom are getting significant field time right from the start. In the back, first-year defender Daniel Hahn has impressed, helping to fill out a line that lost the steady presence of John Hughes (A.B. ’09). First-year midfielder Garret Laird is another highlight of the new class, and both Laird and Hahn have appeared immediately comfortable with college competition.

What all this early promise amounts to won’t be clear until UAA play, which kicks off for Chicago at Cargenie on October 3. The UAA is where the rivalries are, it’s where the Maroons struggled most a year ago, and once again this year, it’s where some of the nation’s best teams can be found. Three UAA teams opened the year ranked nationally, including ninth-ranked (and defending Association champion) Emory, which has a date at Stagg scheduled for October 10.