While teams are usually led by their upperclassmen, this year’s UDC men’s soccer team seems to be just a little bit different. In only their second season on the team, many of the sophomores on this year’s squad have already made a name for themselves and are key contributors to the Firebirds success so far this season. While the juniors and seniors are certainly vital to the team’s success, the current group of sophomores, especially Felix Angerer, Nenad Smiljanic, Sam Rowden, Pat Borchert, Flavio De Sousa Macedo, and Hassirou Diakite, has really taken the Firebirds to the next level through their skill as well as through their chemistry and teamwork. The secret to the sophomores’ success and cohesion, though, may not have as much to do with what happens on the pitch as much as what happens off of it.
This group of six players all entered UDC together as freshmen last year and after spending a large majority of their days together, seemed to hit it off with each other socially right away.
“It was easy to get along immediately because you were living together and spending almost every minute together,” said forward Felix Angerer.
Some of the players also pointed out that the immediate success they had on the pitch to start off their careers helped in the bonding process.
“We immediately got along on and off the field because we won our first four games of the season when half of the players in the starting eleven were new. When you win, it is easier to be friends with everybody,” added midfielder Nenad Smiljanic.
Even though the players clicked pretty early on, there were still a few difficulties in acclimating and getting used to each other, especially since five of the six players came from foreign countries and grew up speaking a language other than English.
“For me personally, it was very exciting to meet the guys last year and I think we got along right away. One of the difficulties for me was the language barrier in the beginning, but all my teammates helped a lot,” remarked midfielder and defender Pat Borchert, who himself hails from Germany. He added, “As we can see in the results of last season, we had good chemistry right away. In a team sport like soccer, with many internationals and also a lot of local players on our team, there are many styles of playing mixed together. But we also learned from each other, which made our chemistry even better throughout the season.”
In their second year together, the players have continued to gel and spend a lot of time together off the field and outside the classroom. UDC is currently 5-3-1 overall and 2-1 in the very competitive East Coast Conference. This group of six has collectively contributed 11 of the team’s 17 total goals this season. Meanwhile, they manage to stay close friends, hanging out together frequently outside of school and on the weekends.
“We have a close bond, we like to play video games, go out in the city, and play tennis,” said midfielder Hassirou Diakite.
When asked about activities they enjoy doing together, all six players mentioned playing video games – specifically, playing the FIFA soccer game…an indication of their love for soccer which further brings them together off the field. Some of the players even had the chance to go to Florida together for Spring Break last year. The players have also had some favorite activities with the whole team that they felt were the best bonding experiences.
“One of my favorite activities we did as a whole team was paintball. A couple of us also did Spring Break in Florida, which was awesome,” forward Sam Rowden said.
It is clear from talking with these players and watching the way they play together on the pitch that these six sophomores get along well and have fun together, which the players think has been has a very positive impact on their performance on the soccer field. According to Smiljanic, their cohesion off the field allows them to be better as a unit and encourages them to try harder on the field.
“[The off the field friendships are] really important. We’ve won some hard games because we were strong together and working for one another. I’m sure of it,” Smiljanic insisted.
Diakite also stressed that the bond off the field improves their play on the field because “we understand each other and play for each other.” The players have a sense for one another, know how the others play, and trust each other – all attributes that have contributed to the Firebirds’ success.
This camaraderie also has made it easy for the players to make it through some very long road-trips. The team is coming off a stretch of four straight road games which included long road trips to upstate New York to play Roberts Wesleyan and Erie, PA to play No. 13 nationally ranked Mercyhurst. The players feel that road trips like this, while allowing them to compete against some of the best teams in the country, also helps the team come together as a unit off the pitch, especially during the seven or eight-hour bus rides.
“The long trips can be fun, and the hotels are really nice,” Borchert said. “We all really enjoy when [Assistant] Coach Danny [Wadeson] plays his guitar on the bus and when we go out to eat the night before the games.”
The team even had a chance to see some sites between games. When asked about what he was looking forward to most on the road trip, Rowden had two things at the top of his list.
“Visiting Niagara Falls and of course competing,” Rowden said.
This strong bond has certainly paid dividends on the field as the Firebirds are 5-3-1 overall and 2-1 in conference so far this season, with two of their loses coming to two top-20 teams in the nation. The Firebirds were even ranked 21st in the country for a short time, a position they certainly hope to return to, if not improve on. They are currently ranked 5th in the East Region.
Still, with two more years left at UDC, the six sophomores are convinced that we haven’t even seen their full potential yet.
“Our bond will continue to grow if we stick together, and I believe we can expect some great times together as well as some great soccer victories. Maybe even an ECC title hopefully,” said defender Flavio De Sousa Macedo.
Look for these sophomores to continue to lead the charge for the Firebirds moving forward, this season and for seasons to come.