There’s only room for one striker in head Elon University men’s soccer coach Chris Little’s offense. The second-year head coach favors a formation with true wingers out wide and a playmaker in the center midfielder position playing right behind the striker.
With the departure of Jason Waterman ’15 at the end of last season, Little has handed over the reigns of the striker position to a pair of new faces, senior forward Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler and freshman forward Jaiden Fortune.
Vandermaas-Peeler, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill transfer, has started in all five matches for the Phoenix, scoring two goals as well as assisting two more.
Fortune has also appeared in all five matches, making each appearance off the bench. The Bedford, England, native has scored three goals — tied with senior forward Caue Da Silva for a team high — and also leads the team in assists with three.
“He’s obviously scoring goals, but he’s also making goals too,” Little said. “You can see his spirit. [His] determination to do things is there, and as a forward, he needs to take his chances — and he has.”
Cashing in on opportunities
Elon fans got their first opportunity to see Fortune in action in Elon’s home opening 4-0 victory against Davidson College Sept. 12. The match was scoreless late in the first half when Little brought in Fortune for Vandermaas-Peeler. Just about two minutes later, Fortune gave Elon the lead.
“As a center forward, I’m always thinking about scoring goals,” Fortune said. “Coming in and to be able to make an impact like that was really good.”
Fortune’s highly touted pace and strength were on full display in the buildup to the goal. Fortune received a pass from senior midfielder Eduardo Alvarez, outmuscled his defender and blasted a powerful shot past the Davidson goalkeeper.
After the goal, Fortune ran over to the Elon bench, where he was swarmed by his teammates.
“We kind of do everything for each other,” Fortune said. “Coming from where I was at before, Orlando City, we were kind of a close team. And now coming to Elon, to be honest I feel like we’re even closer.”
Fortune would score his second goal of the match in the 51st minute, with Vandermaas-Peeler still on the bench, and nearly completed his hat trick when another shot went off the post. He received a generous round of applause from the crowd when he was substituted off late in the second half.
Despite playing less than a full match at Rudd Field, Fortune feels at home at Elon.
“I like that close unity [Elon] has,” Fortune said. “Seeing everyone so close to the pitch and being able to give the fans a show was really great,” he said.
From a defender’s eyes
Senior defender Sam McBride battles with Fortune daily in training, and is able to see up close the trouble Fortune can cause for opposing defenses. He said Fortune doesn’t look like somebody three years younger.
“It’s definitely not easy,” McBride said. “He’s so strong and he can turn you at anytime. I’m always thinking I have to be on my toes at all times and I think that’s why I play well out here because I’m going against the best [in training.]”
Fortune said he’s used to playing against older players, but admits there was a lot to adjust to when he came to Elon.
“When we first started training I was nervous playing with older, stronger and faster guys and just getting used to that,” he said. “But I feel like the way I play I’m really going to adapt well to the college game.”
Despite being positioned as a central striker, Fortune likes to revert back to his youth days as wide player.
“From when I was 7 to when I was about 13, I was a right winger, so that was kind of my first natural position,” he said. “I feel like I do drift out each wing sometimes. The best players in the world can play all over the place and it brings another dynamic to your game.”
Fortune said he already senses the chemistry with his teammates in attack. He credited Little’s drill in training, which are designed to work on forward movements and interchanging positions.
Making quite the first impression
Vandermaas-Peeler has slid right into Little’s starting lineup since joining in the spring. He scored Elon’s first goal of the season against DePaul University Aug. 28 and has been very accurate, scoring with two of his three shots on goal.
Little said Vandermaas-Peeler’s and Fortune’s styles of play work well with each other.
“In an attacking sense, [Vandermaas-Peeler’s] very intelligent with his awareness of space,” he said. “It’s a good complement we’ve got a guy who drops in, drags defenders around and then you have another striker who comes in and really has lots of pace and strength so it’s difficult for teams to defend.”
Vandermaas-Peeler also helps out on Elon’s defense, which has kept four clean sheets its first five matches. Little said Vandermaas-Peeler’s mobility and versatility helps close in on defenders when Elon’s pressing high up the field.
“Those clean sheets don’t just happen,” Little said. “It’s from really hard work. I’m delighted for [the players], it’s something they really take ownership of and to get four clean sheets out of five is fantastic.”
McBride said despite the hot start, it’s no time for the team to be resting on its laurels.
“We’re happy right now, but we have to make sure we don’t get complacent,” he said. “These wins have been really big but I think we need to keep our heads straight there’s a long season ahead of us.”