Aug. 14, 2009
The 2009 Northern Illinois men's soccer team reported to campus, Friday, officially starting the Huskies' quest for a second MAC Championship in four seasons.
More than a decade spent in coaching has taught first-year head coach Eric Luzzi one thing: success begins with sacrifice.
"If you sacrifice now you're going to get so much more in return a little later," he said. "True sacrifice will have a huge payoff in terms of the overall experience and the season that we're going to have."
In 2009, Luzzi and the Huskies are looking to continue the most successful run in program history. Over the past five seasons, Northern Illinois has won 56 matches, delivered a Mid-American Conference Championship to DeKalb, and upended two top-10 teams. In order for that unprecedented level of success to continue, Luzzi believes each member of his team must sacrifice for one another.
"There's an expectation that our guys care about each other, and that they give of themselves for the team," he said. "We are going to build a team in the truest sense of the word, to the point where everybody on our team is invested, on the same page, and they care about their teammates as much as they care about themselves."
That team-first philosophy helped the Huskies to the 2006 MAC Championship, and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The players who were freshman on that team are now seniors, and Luzzi believes their experience will be essential to the upcoming year.
"Our seniors have a very unique perspective because they do have an appetite to experience those same feelings again," Luzzi said. "They know how hard we've had to work over the last couple of years and how close we've been. They know the margin for error is so small. I think those are lessons that they're going to be able to pass on to our younger core of players."
The Huskie soccer renaissance that taught many of those lessons began with a commitment to defending. The Huskies recorded 35 shutouts from 2005-08, a trend Luzzi is intent on continuing.
"Obviously defending has been a big part of our formula for success over last several years and the expectation is that is going to continue," Luzzi said.
Two essential defenders are seniors Kyle Knotek (Geneva, Ill./Geneva) and Josh Karsten (Barrington Hills, Ill./Barrington). The pair have combined to play in 105 games, and hold 92 career starts.
"Our back line is going to start with Josh," Luzzi said. "He has been a staple as one of our centerbacks for pretty much his entire NIU career, and he is going to be the leader of our team from the back."
While Karsten will be the keystone of the center, Knotek will act as the shutdown defender on the outside.
"When you have to play against players like (former Akron forward and current Major League Soccer starter) Steve Zakuani, you need outside backs that can shut things down," Luzzi said. "When you're talking about a guy that can shut things down there may not be a better player in the whole country at that then Kyle Knotek."
Knotek, an ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA Academic All-American, is widely regarded for his unceasing motor on the field, a characteristic shared by sophomore defender Alex Evert (Marietta, Ga./Harrison).
Said Luzzi: "Alex Evert is a player that had a fantastic spring for us as an outside back. He has this wonderfully honest work rate about him that when he gets forward he is going to kill himself to make sure he gets back and make it hard on the other team to break us down," Luzzi said.
The Huskies also return the experience in the back of Francis Otira (London, England/Finchley Catholic) and Tim King (Arlington Heights, Ill./Conant), both of whom saw action in 2008 as freshmen.
The final piece of the Huskies defensive puzzle is Danny Lopez. Renowned for his versatility, Lopez (Buffalo Grove, Ill./Stevenson) could fill the space in the defensive midfield left by the graduation of Drew Jeskey.
"Danny Lopez is a very difficult player for other teams to deal with in the midfield," Luzzi said of the senior. "He closes things down at a rate that not many other guys can."
Ahead of Lopez in the midfield will be a combination of freshman all-American Brad Horton (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore), Luis De La Cerda (Guadalajara, Mexico/Waubonsie Valley) and Luis Mojica (St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles East). Horton led the Huskies in goals (six) and points (15), and creates danger for the opposition whenever he touches the ball.
"I know that whenever Brad has the ball, there is the potential for something big time to happen," Luzzi said.
De La Cerda, with seven career goals, and Mojica, with four assists in his time at NIU, can also provide a spark to the Huskie offense, though Luzzi hasn't decided exactly how he will utilize their talents.
"Luis and Luis are very good playmakers, and it's our job as a coaching staff to put them in the right positions to make plays," Luzzi said.
Other returners in the midfield include 2008 assist-leader Engebreth Faerden (Oslo, Norway/Academy for Elite Athletes), and senior Brad Bahr (Peoria, Ill./Dunlap), who has the experience of 22 matches played for the Huskies.
Northern Illinois' skilled and experienced midfield will be feeding the ball to a versatile group of forwards. In addition to bringing back 83 percent of the goals scored in 2008, the Huskies return four strikers with significant experience. Senior Ben Thomas (Hamilton, Ohio/Fairfield) led all forwards with four goals last season, and has found the net eight times in the 55 matches of his Huskie career.
"Certainly Ben Thomas is the most experienced striker that we have," Luzzi said. "He has some athletic tools that make it difficult for opponents to stay with him, intelligence to the way he moves that make it difficult for opponents to deal with him."
Another athlete who has the physical tools to challenge the opposition is junior Juan Hoyos (Aurora, Ill./Waubonsie Valley). After scoring two goals in the first match of 2008, including a spectacular bicycle kick from the 18-yard line, Hoyos struggled with injury and appeared in just six matches. Luzzi expects a healthy Hoyos to contribute heavily to the NIU attack.
"Juan Hoyos is a physical presence up top that I can't imagine many opposing backlines are going to be prepared for," Luzzi said. "He has worked really hard in the last six or eight months to get himself to a level where he can have an impact every single time he steps on the field."
Another forward with unique physical tools is 6-foot-5 Norwegian Finn Jor (Oslo/Academy for Elite Athletes), who contributed two goals and an assist to the attack as a freshman one year ago. But Luzzi admires his mind for the game as much as his imposing figure.
"He is a Norwegian so he comes with a different soccer pedigree than a lot of our American kids," Luzzi said. "He has a tactical awareness of how things should be done in that role. He is also a handful, at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds of solid athlete."
Rounding out the returning strikers are Johnny Tyma (Mundelein, Ill./Mundelein), and Jason Guehler (The Colony, Texas/The Colony). A super-striker before coming to NIU, Guehler twice led his national championship club team in goals scored. Luzzi believes he has all the tools to give opposing defenses fits.
"Jason is one of the more intelligent attacking players I've ever coached," Luzzi said. "When he is playing with confidence he is one of the best finishers I have ever been around."
Luzzi added that Tyma also figures into mix up top for Northern Illinois this season.
"Johnny Tyma is potentially the best natural finisher we have on our team," Luzzi said. "He scores some goals in training that I can't imagine that many other players at our level finding ways to score."
Luzzi is confident the Huskies have all the pieces in place to compete for another MAC Championship.
"I know that our guys can compete with anybody in the country on the soccer field," he said. "I think that our emphasis is going to be continuing to become a true team. Our expectation is that we are going to be one of the tightest, hardest-working groups of players in the country. When you pair those things together, it's going to allow our family to achieve things that most of the people don't think are possible."
And it will all start with sacrifice.