University of Akron men’s soccer coach Jared Embick has been thinking outside the box since a shocking Oct. 5 upset loss to Hartwick that ultimately most probably cost the Zips one of the 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
But Embick took the biggest risk of his first season in charge in the Mid-American Conference Tournament last weekend. He changed his goalkeeper.
Not only will the switch from redshirt freshman Fernando Pina to sophomore Jake Fenlason impact how UA (16-3-1) fares in the NCAAs, starting at 7 p.m. Thursday at home against defending champion Indiana (8-11-2), but Embick also might have opened the door for Pina to transfer.
Whether or not Pina departs, Embick will have made his point to present and future Zips. There are no free passes for highly touted recruits. If they don’t produce on the field — or in Pina’s case are outperformed in training — their starting roles might be in jeopardy.
Pina arrived from Houston in 2012 rated the top goalkeeper prospect in his class by Top Drawer Soccer. In what was perhaps a motivational ploy, then-coach Caleb Porter touted the way Pina flew around the goal and said he might fit the Zips’ style better than four-year starter David Meves, whom Pina never displaced.
In 2013, with Meves going to the U-23 developmental team of Porter’s Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, Pina started strong. The Zips posted shutouts in five of their first nine games. Pina made some spectacular saves during the season. He was named MAC player of the week Sept. 30 after shutouts against West Virginia and Ohio State. UA’s 0.61 goals against average ranks eighth in Division I this week. Rumblings of a change never surfaced, even though Fenlason had been training well for the past five weeks.
Unlike Pina, Fenlason was not highly recruited. Brian Quinn, a former player in the English Premier League and father of UA midfielder Aodhan Quinn, coached Fenlason in club soccer for five years in San Diego and mentioned to Porter that he had a great keeper. Fenlason said Tuesday his only serious Division I offer was from Cal State-Bakersfield, but he was holding out for something better.
No one from the UA coaching staff ever saw him play except on a highlight DVD, Fenlason said. Going into the MAC Tournament opener last Friday against West Virginia, the only time Fenlason had gotten onto the field in a UA uniform was during spring exhibitions.
But Embick stuck his neck out. On the Monday before the MAC Tournament, Fenlason said Embick called him into his office and told him the staff was looking at several positions it thought needed to be sharper. Embick put his top two keepers on notice that they would be battling it out that week in training, with the decision made Thursday.
“There were a couple things late in the year that he normally does well, he started to not do as well as he’s capable of,” Embick said of Pina on Monday after the NCAA selection show. “I don’t know if it’s a slump. We thought maybe with the amount of games his first time through it, maybe he’s hit a wall.
“Jake has improved quite a bit. He’s been close to doing this earlier in the year and maybe psychologically wasn’t ready for it. It seems like this time around he wants the job; he was ready for it. At this stage we’re going to go with the guy who’s been training better.”
Fenlason gave up only one goal against West Virginia and Western Michigan as the Zips won 3-0 and 4-1, respectively. But those foes totaled only three shots on goal and Fenlason recorded two saves, both against the Mountaineers. If Fenlason starts in the NCAAs, Embick must hope he plays like he has been practicing.
Embick pointed out that his decision wasn’t made on gut instinct, that the staff analyzed training videos and game tapes. But there was also a tactical aspect involved.
“Fernando is lightning quick with his reactions and his game with his feet is phenomenal. He can side volley a ball anywhere he wants to do it. He’s a bit more flashy,” goalkeepers coach Stuart Dobson said. “Jake’s a steady goalkeeper. He rarely makes mistakes. He’s got a bigger frame. He’s taller and he’s got a longer reach, so he can save shots in the top and bottom corner.”
The Zips’ lineup has been in flux all season. Saad Abdul-Salaam and Robbie Derschang have played three positions. Defenders Bryan Gallego and Andrew Souders have gone to right back, not their usual spot. Eric Stevenson, mainly a wing player, has moved to center forward. Brad Ruhaak, a freshman from Copley, started in a three-back set at West Virginia, and freshman Louis Cross did the same at St. John’s.
“We’ve kind of done it all year and for the most part it’s worked out,” Embick said.
“It’s just making sure the players don’t get too low about getting pulled and guys coming in are mentally ready. That takes a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Those moves might not run the risk of alienating a player like Embick could have with Pina.
“You can tell he’s very disappointed,” Dobson said of Pina. “It hurt his confidence a little bit being benched, but he’s a fighter. I can tell he’s mad at the coaches, probably mad at himself for letting his standards drop. The goalkeeper position is a lot mental. But he’s doing extra practice. He wants to play in the tournament.
“We’ve explained to him it’s a short-term move. Whether it is or it isn’t, we still believe in him. He’s still part of our plans for the future.”
Fenlason, of course, is thrilled his hard work has been rewarded. He believes his teammates have confidence in him. He loves that Embick wasn’t afraid to go to him at tournament time.
“Tactically he’s a genius, that’s what it comes down to,” Fenlason said. “He saw something that we weren’t doing well and said, ‘We need to fix it.’ ”
Fenlason is obviously biased about his coach. Starting tonight, Embick’s “genius” will be tested.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.