When Elon University men’s soccer head coach Chris Little is creating his starting lineup, he’s looking for balance.
“Our system isn’t really set up just for one player to be the guy scoring goals,” Little said. “Maybe that was the case in the past, but we’ve tried to get away from that.”
Eleven of the 19 who have played for the Phoenix this year have scored at least one goal. Even redshirt freshman goalkeeper Mathew Jegier has an assist to his name.
The balance Little has found the most consistency in revolves around the midfield, where seniors Eduardo Alvarez and Miguel Salazar are preparing freshman Amir Berkane to take over once they graduate.
Set piece specialist
Few expected Alvarez to be tied for the team-lead in goals at five. The holding midfielder scored a long range goal against DePaul University Aug. 28. Alvarez also scored a free kick in Elon’s 3-1 loss to the University of South Carolina and delivered the corner kick that senior defender Nathan Diehl scored on in Elon’s victory over James Madison University Oct. 17.
“That’s something I grew up with,” Alvarez said. “I’ve always been a penalty taker and free kick taker. It’s just something I like to do and I think the coach knows that.”
In addition to his offensive skills, Alvarez’s defensive duties have equal impact, as seen in Elon’s 2-1 road victory over the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Oct. 14. Little had given Alvarez a break by not starting him in the match or the prior one against Lipscomb University, and Little said Alvarez looked a lot fresher in leading the team to a victory.
“There were 20-odd minutes left and we were winning two goals to one, and I thought we managed that 20 minutes really well,” Little said. “I don’t really remember Wilmington having a good shot on goal.”
Connecting through a different language
Alvarez transferred to Elon for his junior year from Louisburg College. He said it was Salazar that helped him transition to the new team.
“I think him knowing Spanish and being able to communicate better with him in Spanish really helped,” Salazar said.
Alvarez hails from Reitoca, Honduras, while Salazar calls Guanajuato, Mexico, his hometown. The two had a chance to spend a lot of bonding time together this past summer.
“There were not a lot of people here in the summer,” Salazar said. “So we hung out a lot and it was a really good time.”
Salazar occupies the other holding midfield position in Little’s system. He said having not just a teammate, but a friend lining up next to him every match makes the chemistry easy.
“We both have really similar qualities,” Salazar said. “We both like to attack and defend, so we’re very similar in that aspect. The important thing here is to keep a balance in the team. We can’t just push both of us forward and we just can’t both stay and defend.”
On the field, the playing style of the two midfielders may almost be too similar.
“A lot of people also confuse us on the field, which is funny, but we all just take it as a joke,” Salazar said. “That just helps the camaraderie of the team.”
Waiting in the wings
Freshman midfielder Berkane started in place of Alvarez in the Lipscomb and Wilmington matches. Berkane excelled in deputy duty in the heart of Elon’s midfield and was named the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) rookie of the week Oct. 12.
The Ipswich Town Academy graduate scored the winning goal just over six minutes after entering the match as a substitute. Berkane then assisted the lone goal in the victory over Lipscomb.
Little said he’s been trying to steadily increase the minutes of the new players such as Berkane. He expects Berkane to only improve playing in his natural defensive midfield position.
“That’s his position, he’s comfortable in there and what’s good about him is you could see from his two goals that he could get forward,” Little said. “What’s been tough for him and some of the other guys is we’ve got a lot of good competition. There are some really good senior players ahead of him.”
Little said it’s difficult to drop senior players like Alvarez, but insists experienced players are the ones who make up the core of the team.
“We’re very lucky to have some senior leadership through the spine of the team in key areas,” he said.
Little will continue to tweak his lineup looking for the balance between attack and defense, as well as between youth and experience. While Berkane may fall under the category of youth, he’ll soon be called on to show his abilities.
“There’s no bones about it,” Little said. “We recruited [Berkane] to replace Miguel and Eduardo.”