The BYU men's soccer team just completed its four-game home stand to kick off the Premier Development League season, and after Saturday's dramatic 3-2 win over Las Vegas, the Cougars find themselves in an unfamiliar position:
Yes, you read that correctly. Even facing the talented opponents in the PDL, BYU has managed to win each of its first four games (plus it won all five of the games it played before league play began) to run its record to 4-0-0 in the PDL and 9-0-0 overall.
Cougar head coach Chris Watkins said his squad is very happy with how the year has begun.
"We knew if we didn’t have any injuries that we have a great player at every position and two at goalkeepers," he said. "We’re not super-deep, but with the pieces we have, that we would be better than we’ve been in the last few years. We have a great team. We beat UNLV and Denver, a Top 25 team. I think that gave us a lot of confidence and we started believing in ourselves more. It snowballed into what has been a big start."
BYU junior forward Garrett Gee said he sensed this team could be pretty good from early on.
"There has been a special atmosphere as far as camaraderie," he said. "There haven’t been any really big egos. Everyone is basically lifting everyone together."
One of the things that has made a big difference is how athletes of various ages have integrated into the team concept.
"We have Scott Heaton who hangs out with Blake (Frischnecht) and they are like buddies," Watkins said. "We’ve got a 26-year-old who has his master’s degree in accounting and he’s best friends with a freshman at BYU. It’s kind of a weird group but they are good friends and they really give each other confidence."
Gee said that teamwork has improved the chemistry on the field, helping the Cougars to find success. That comes from the attitude that has developed behind the scenes
"One of the big differences this year from other years is the fact that everyone is not only willing, but excited, to put in the extra effort," he said. "If you saw us when we are lifting weights, early morning practice, our nutrition, everything we are doing to be our very best, everyone is happily and proactively putting in that extra effort."
Watkins pointed to the efforts of Gee and senior midfielder Colby Bauer has being catalysts for the mentality of the team.
“It all centers around Garrett, one, but you would say Colby Bauer, two,” Watkins said. “He’s a magnet. Everyone loves being around him. He’s a great guy to have on your team and kind of build your team around. He’s a phenomenal player.”
Gee explained that he takes his responsibilities pretty seriously as far as keeping the entire team on track to be at its best.
“From the beginning of the season, one of my main focuses was to build the confidence of the team around me,” he said. “Now that we’ve done well, I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep everyone humble so that we continue to work hard and improve.”
For Gee and the Cougars, believing they can play at an elite level is a huge benefit.
“The teams we play in the PDL are very skilled, but they are also very confident teams,” Gee said. “Not only have we closed the gap skill-wise, but we are stepping onto the field just as confident as our opponents. Everytime I get the ball, no matter who is guarding me, I’m confident I can take them on and give us a goal. That confidence has made all the difference for every one of our players on the field.”
The biggest factor in building that self-assurance, according to Watkins, might be the most simple and obvious of all: BYU has been scoring, and that has resulted in the Cougars winning.
"Much of what disguises some of our lack of quality has been good finishing and the confidence that comes with winning some games," he said. "We still don’t have people asking about having our players be drafted or join other teams, but we are putting enough together to where I’m very proud of the way we play. We’ve deserved to win all of our games."
Watkins pointed to the way BYU spreads the ball around as the biggest strength of the squad so far in 2014.
"We fly out of the back and we spread them out so much that we can find space on the inside," he said. "We’ve got a great finisher and a couple of great wingers, so our opponents have to defend us in 75 yards of width. As such, we’re able to find good opportunities when we go back to the inside."
It’s trying to do too much on the inside that has created the most concern, however.
“Our biggest mistakes are made in the midfield when we overrun a ball,” Watkins said. “We think we can go get it and win the ball, then we miss and they come attack the space we left and they come all the way down into our end. We create a lot offensively in the midfield but can we contain our opponents? It’s fun to watch, but it’s making my hair fall out.”
Of course, both Watkins and Gee know that all BYU has done so far is hold serve. Now the Cougars have to prove they can maintain this level of play away from the friendly confines of South Field.
"There are a lot of teams really anxious for us to go to their place," Watkins said.
BYU still has a long ways to go to match the sparkling record of the 2007 team, which ended up 14-2-2, but the Cougars are glad to have set the bar high with their unblemish start and Gee remains confident in how BYU will move forward.
“I think we are going to do it,” he said. “I see nothing but wins ahead for us and a lot of that responsibility is on me.”
The Cougars next take on FC Tucson on the road on Thursday at 7 p.m., followed by a trip to Las Vegas on Saturday. Trips to Fresno and San Jose follow the week after, then BYU gets a week off before returning to Provo to play the Real Colorado Foxes on June 24.