UVU brings NCAA Division I men’s soccer back to Utah

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UVU men's soccer head coach Greg Maas. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

UVU men’s soccer head coach Greg Maas. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

When Cameron Kidwell walked off the soccer field on Oct. 28, 2012, he was part of the final Division I soccer contest played by Towson University in Maryland. The Potomac, Maryland, native was there as the university administration shut down its D-I men’s soccer program. Undaunted, Kidwell is now striving to bring the sport back.

Kidwell will be the lone senior on the squad when he and his new Utah Valley University teammates make the pitch Aug. 30 at Clyde Field on UVU’s Orem campus to launch a new NCAA men’s soccer program, which will be the only D-I men’s team in the state of Utah. He has experienced the end at one school, and now he is part of an exciting new beginning at another.

“I have been around UVU for more than a decade.Men’s soccer has always been a big part of the discussion when contemplating adding a new sport,” said Jared Sumsion, the senior associate athletic director at UVU, “especially since there are more than 48,000 youth soccer players in the state of Utah, which is the one of the highest per-capita averages in the country. When an invitation from the WAC became more apparent, we knew that men’s soccer would need to officially be added. We gladly accepted the offer to join the WAC, and it finally gave us the opportunity to fully implement men’s soccer into an automatic qualifying NCAA D-I conference.”

It has been decades since the state of Utah has been the home of a men’s D-I soccer team, so in a way, this is the Wolverines’ chance to be the state’s team. But adding a new sport isn’t easy.

“The biggest obstacle is funding the program and doing it in a way that we can have sustainable success,” Sumsion said. “We believe that we have all the right pieces in place currently, but we are still looking for more financial support to sustain long-term success. Financial sustainability is always one of the first concerns, Title IX comes into play, conference affiliation with the sport, and community reaction and need, which in the case of men’s soccer was evident as the soccer-hungry community in Utah was long overdue for an NCAA D-I men’s soccer program.”

 

Finding a Coach

The program caught its first big break last October, as plans were unfolding for its introduction. That was when the technical director for Utah Youth Soccer reached out to Sumsion to offer his assistance. Greg Maas offered to provide whatever help he could as UVU looked for a coach.

More than 100 candidates from across the country applied for the position, but once the process played out, Sumsion was left with one clear choice, and Maas is the man who will lead the Wolverines onto their inaugural campaign.

“Coach Maas is the right man for the job, and the right coach for UVU,” Sumsion said. “He embodies the tenacity of a Wolverine and brings with him credentials that have already proven to be beneficial for the start-up of our program. He is deeply connected with the local soccer scene, with RSL and other MLS clubs, and even has many beneficial connections across the country and internationally.

“If there is a player with talent in the western United States, Coach Maas can probably tell you their story, and even give you their scouting report. One of the defining characteristics that put Coach Maas above the rest was his desire to do things the right way. From training to course work, he accepts nothing but excellence with his student-athletes. We knew that his talents and abilities would equal success.”

Greg Maas is a product of the Pacific Northwest. He grew up in Oregon where played his collegiate soccer at the University of Portland and later played professionally for the Portland Timbers before going into coaching in 1994.

“I was very fortunate to play in one of the top programs in the nation, at the University of Portland,” Maas said. “I played for the late Clive Charles, who is one of the most storied coaches in U.S. soccer history. I had a chance to learn from him, not only as a player, but as a mentor for me as a coach.”

Coach Maas began his coaching career as a youth club director in Oregon, overseeing a club of about 3,500 members who played at a wide range of levels. In 2001, he had an opportunity to come to Utah as the technical director of youth soccer in this state, and it was too good a chance to pass up.

UVU soccer coach Greg Maas explains a drill to his team during a spring training session. (Photo by Kellen Hiser, UVU Athletic Dept.)

UVU soccer coach Greg Maas explains a drill to his team during a spring training session. (Photo by Kellen Hiser/UVU Athletic Dept.)

“The opportunity to be the technical director of Utah Youth Soccer is one of 55 such positions across the country,” Maas said. “My wife was also born and raised in Park City, so it was an opportunity to move back home for her, and soccer here in Utah is just continuing to grow. It’s just fantastic. We have a fantastic fan base that’s just experienced, knowledgeable and very passionate.”

In his 12 years working with Utah’s young soccer players, Maas has seen tremendous growth. There are now nearly 60,000 registered players overall. The coach has devoted his time as a member of Real Salt Lake’s Youth Academy staff, working as a coach with the under-17 program. He has coached Western region teams, the regional Olympic Development Program team, and he is also a national staff coach with U.S. Soccer.

When Maas first came to Utah, he had hopes of taking his coaching to the next level, but it took a little longer than he expected. He figured that one of the state’s major universities would eventually decide to add men’s soccer to the menu.

“When I first moved here in 2001, my goal was probably a two- to three-year stint and then maybe I would consider moving into one of our state universities, creating a Division I men’s program. It never happened,” Maas said. “That goal was always there, I’d talk to all of our representatives from each of the universities to find out if that was going to be a next step. It’s a challenge, with budgets and the economy where it was, starting a new program is tough. There has to be a sincere interest, not only in wanting to build it, but in having the finances to maintain it.”

A dozen years later, it is UVU that is taking the plunge and Maas is thrilled to be in position to lead the way.

“I initially reached out to UVU to find out a little bit more about the program and the direction,” Maas said. “My overriding interest was to make sure, as the technical director of Utah Youth Soccer at the time, and working with Real Salt Lake, that we hired the right guy for the position. It’s been a long time coming for a Division I program here. I thought about it and soon after that, I found myself in the middle of an interview process and I am very fortunate, humbled and very proud to be the coach here at Utah Valley University.”

The players say they are impressed with the selection of Maas and his coaching staff. He is well-known in the Utah soccer community and that has created a positive atmosphere for this first-year team.

“I’ve known him since I was 14, playing for Real Salt Lake,” said redshirt freshman and former Timpview star Karson Payton. “I love him because he’s straight up. He knows everything about soccer. He’s honest with his players and he brings a whole other level to the game. When you’re out there with him, you want to be better because he will tell you straight what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right. Once he tells you, you want to get right on it and do better at that moment. Playing with him, it’s an honor, really, because he’s such a high-level coach.”

 

Building A Team

Maas’ connections have certainly helped in team-building, as the coaching staff has compiled a strong group with which to hit the ground running. As you would expect, it is heavy on freshman, with a few transfers in the mix, but the Wolverines will take on a challenging schedule with few players who  have NCAA soccer experience.

“We have some transfers from Cal Poly, Kentucky, Fullerton. We’ve had players transfer in from BYU (club soccer),” Maas said. “Overall, we have 12 transfers coming in. We’ve got quite a unique group. We’ve got three or four guys with U.S. under-17 national team residential experience. We’ve got a transfer from Weber State, we’ve got a transfer from BYU-Hawaii, and one senior coming in from Maryland, in Towson, that dropped their program, so he’s coming from a program that’s being dropped to a program that’s being started, so that’s kind of unique.”

Timpview graduate Karson Payton is a redshirt freshman on the UVU men's soccer team. (Photo by Kellen Hiser, UVU Athletic Dept.)

Timpview graduate Karson Payton is a redshirt freshman on the UVU men’s soccer team. (Photo by Kellen Hiser/UVU Athletic Dept.)

Kidwell has the most D-I level NCAA experience, with 28 matches under his belt during the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Towson. He scored two goals and had two assists. Ben Perkins is a transfer from Kentucky, who saw action in four games there, while Tyler Brown was on the pitch for 13 contests during his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts in 2009, which was followed by a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In addition to finding a few experienced players to transfer to UVU, Maas reached out to players he has coached and others he watched during his years of involvement with the elite youth soccer players in Utah and the Western region.

“Thankfully I’ve been around the state for a while and I’ve been able to coach and watch these young men develop as soccer players, both on and off the field,” Maas said. “When the opportunity came about, I reached out to some of them, some that were just coming out of high school and some that might have been on missions and a few others that might be looking, once the program was announced, to transfer in.

“I was able to go out and identify those student athletes who would be a great fit for Utah Valley University, both in the classroom and on the field, who have also played and excelled in the game at many, many levels. We have players coming in from maybe 14 different states and a couple of other countries as well.”

Maas is looking for a particular kind of player, and he was successful in recruiting players who will fit his style for early success, and help him build the kind of program that is sustainable in the long term.

“The recruits coming in are guys that I feel not only are ready, but they’re going to be ready in their first year, so these are going to be players that are going to carry us forward,” Maas said.

The coach wants to find talented players, but he believes that the best are identified by the way they carry themselves during all kinds of situations.

“I first look at their personality on the field,” Maas said. “Obviously technical and tactical awareness, and physical nature is all very important to me when I look to evaluate a player, but I like to see their personality, their fit. How do they interact with their teammates? How do they interact with an opponent? How do they react to adversity on the field? If a mistake happens, do they drop their head and kind of kick the ground or did they get right back up on it and try to win the ball back? That tells me a lot about a player. I’ll watch a player from the time they get out of the car to the time they’re leaving the field and that gives me a little bit of an insight not just of how they play, but of how they are as a person.”

Going forward, Maas realizes that being the standard-bearer for NCAA D-I men’s soccer in the state provides an opportunity to reach out to the best in-state players, and he is committed to providing a place for those athletes to play collegiate soccer at its highest level.

“First and foremost, just over half of our roster this year are Utah-based players, so it was important for me to engage the best players available, that I thought were going to be great Division I players and great students,” Maas said. “My first priority is to recruit the best players here in Utah, but it’s also important to me to be an ambassador for the university and for our growth and culture here to look beyond Utah and to the intermountain region, where we’re very limited in programs but have a lot of talent. I think that mix is healthy and it’s good for the growth of our program.”

 

Staying Home to Play Soccer

Karson Payton grew up in Provo and played his high school soccer at Timpview High, while also participating in top club programs, including RSL’s Academy program and with the U.S. under-17 national team. When it came time to decide where he would play soccer at the collegiate level, Payton really wanted to play NCAA D-I soccer, so he chose to go to San Luis Obispo, California, to play at Cal Poly.

“Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been a top player in Utah,” Payton said. “I played with Real Salt Lake and saw that (the PDL club team at) BYU was always a great program. Growing up in Provo the soccer there was always awesome, but NCAA Division I just throws a different aspect, just knowing you’re at the top level of college soccer. The club teams here in Utah are amazing, and we’re just lucky to have the Division I program here at UVU.”

Sophomore Skyler Milne is one of the Wolverines' team captains. (Photo by Kellen Hiser, UVU Athletic Dept.)

Sophomore Skyler Milne is one of the Wolverines’ team captains. (Photo by Kellen Hiser/UVU Athletic Dept.)

After serving his LDS mission in Argentina, Payton returned home to Utah Valley, where he married. He said he was thrilled to learn that he could stay right here at home and play D-I soccer.

“It was amazing. There’s so many good players out of Utah and knowing that every one of those players had to either go to a different state to play soccer or end up playing PDL at BYU,” Payton said. “I got back from my mission in February. I talked to Greg in March or April and he told me about the program. He asked me if I wanted to be one of his first recruits here, and I said of course I’d love to play here. What made it amazing is knowing that right in my hometown, my backyard, I’ll be able to play in front of the people that I’ve grown up playing in front of and a coach that I’ve grown up playing with.”

Former Brighton star Skyler Milne took a different path to UVU, but like Payton, he is excited for the chance at a fresh start. Milne attended school his freshman year at the University of Utah, where he played club soccer, but it was also his dream to play in an NCAA D-I program.

“As a young kid, I always thought I’d play college somewhere but it was always ‘somewhere,'” Milne said. “I never really thought if Utah would ever get a team. Having this program in my own backyard, I get to still live at home and get to come to practice and go home. It’s pretty awesome.

“I wanted to get out and go play somewhere. I kind of figured to myself that you’re a year into college and no one’s offered you anything, so I’d kind of accepted my fate. Then, when I heard from my club coach that (Coach) Maas was starting this at UVU, I really jumped at the chance, I really wanted to come down here.”

 

The Inaugural Year

It’s difficult enough to compete in the NCAA’s top division, but it is even more a daunting task to be a first-year program. What will it take for Year 1 to be labeled a success for this new pack of Wolverines?

“Our success has already started,” Maas said. “The fact that Utah Valley and our administration has started a Division I program here has put us in a great spot in Utah. It’s been a historic moment to get out and train and play with one another. We’re looking forward to the chance to get out and show what we can do against competition.”

The university’s administration is certainly interested in seeing a winning team on the pitch, but it recognizes that this is a huge first step in a long process.

“Most people measure success simply by wins and losses, but we measure success using various metrics, some of which are academic success, community success, marketing success and the obvious – scoring more goals than the other teams we compete against,” Sumsion said. “Prior to the season even starting we have already seen success in the classroom, on the recruiting trail, and promoting out in the community. We anticipate a very competitive team in Year 1 based on our recruiting class, but most of the lads are young (freshmen and sophomores) and will need to time to create a synergistic approach.”

Half of the players have been in school for the past year, training together but unable to take the field for live matches. That group is really looking forward to the chance to kick it off for real on Aug. 30. The rest of the players will join the group when fall training begins.

“It makes me excited more than anything to go and see how we measure up,” Milne said. “I have a lot of confidence in the team and a lot of confidence in their abilities, and if they have a lot of confidence in mine, we’ll have a great season. We’re looking for that first game. We get nippy at each other in practice. We want to have a game on Friday where we can get all our competitiveness out against an opponent rather than each other.”

“As a team, we know that it’s not going to be easy,” Payton added. “Everyone’s going to come out and say ‘Hey, it’s an NCAA Division I first-year program,’ but we feel confident that at least we’re going to stay in every single game. Realistically, we’d like to just make the conference championship and get an opportunity to play in the NCAA. From there, it’s one game at a time.”

Coach Maas said he is not intimidated when he looks at the season ahead. In fact, he did all that he could to create a difficult schedule as his way of testing his team and lifting the interest level of the fans in Utah County.

“We feel we have a very talented team, we have a broad range of experience. We have 22-year-old freshmen and we have 18-year-old freshmen coming in,” Maas said. “The challenge is going to be bringing that all together. This past year has been instrumental for us to lay the foundation and philosophy and cultivate the structure of what this team is going to move forward to in the fall.

“In the fall, we’ve got a tough schedule. There’s no question. I did that for the purpose of establishing us, not only as a program, but with our fan base. To have UMass being our first game, and then Gonzaga and Denver as our first home matches really gives us and our fan base here a chance to see some top-level collegiate soccer.”

The expectation is that the style of play instilled by Maas and his coaching staff will lead to a highly entertaining brand of soccer. The coach feels that will be a big key to the perception of his team and the value of the experience for those who head over to Clyde Field to check out the new game in town.

Coach Greg Maas gives instructions to some of his UVU players during a training session. (Photo by Kellen Hiser, UVU Athletics Department)

Coach Greg Maas gives instructions to some of his UVU players during a training session. (Photo by Kellen Hiser/UVU Athletics Department)

“(We will play a) very possession-oriented game with a lot of attacking flexibility for the players,” Maas said. “I want to make sure it’s an attractive game, but it’s going to be a hard, honest game too. We focus a lot on our technical ability, our speed of play and our tactical awareness.”

Coach Maas is convinced that his team has the mental preparation to battle through tough times, even though the roster has so little NCAA experience.

“I think years ago the game was a little bit different,” he said. “Physical maturity carried a lot of teams through games. Now, soccer IQ is helping players win games and I feel like we have a good balance of not just physical and psychological maturity, but also good soccer players that can solve problems presented to them on the field.”

For Milne, the preparation on the mental side has been a welcome change.

“They really make you think about (things) instead of just playing, they really make you think about decisions you’re making and it kind of helps develop your game,” Milne said. “It’s totally different from any other system I’ve been in before. Instead of just going out there and scrimmaging for an hour and a half, Greg will have us do certain drills and it’s for a reason.”

 

UVU soccer schedule for the 2014 men's inaugural season.

UVU soccer schedule for the 2014 men’s inaugural season. (Click on the picture to view  the schedule.)

Building a Program

It’s been a long time since the state of Utah has enjoyed the presence of Division I men’s soccer, and UVU is embracing the opportunity.

“The biggest benefit to the community and state is the fact that now youth players have the opportunity to grow up playing soccer and have the chance to play for an athletic scholarship in men’s NCAA D-I soccer,” Sumsion said. “The other big benefit is that the entire state now has a team to cheer for. We have received such a positive response from the state of Utah, youth soccer clubs, Real Salt Lake and even the national soccer scene that we anticipate large crowds at our matches.”

Maas sees this as a change for the community and the game he loves to come together, and he is also excited for the chance to promote UVU soccer overall, not just the men’s team.

“There is so much excitement out there,” Maas said. “These players have grown up in the youth level and these players are very recognizable in the community, and have been out there even with some of the local clubs. From President Holland down to Vice President Val Peterson, to Vince Otupal, our AD, and Jared Sumsion, our associate AD, we’re kind of relying on them to lead the charge.

“We’re trying to manage the fan interest and certainly promote not just UVU men’s soccer and the launch of this program and that first game against UMass, but our soccer program for both our women and men in general here.”

 

The Utah Valley University men’s soccer team will open its inaugural season as an NCAA Division I squad when it hosts the University of Massachusetts at Clyde Field Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

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Kurt Johnson is the owner and managing editor at Preps Utah, a publishing venture that covers high school sports throughout the state of Utah. He previously worked as a sports writer and editor in the Sacramento, California area and with the magazine publishing division at McGraw-Hill. Kurt lives in Provo with his wife, a PhD student at BYU, and his daughter, a student at BYU. He also has two older sons and four grandchildren.

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