As a part of our initiative called Curious Cornhuskers, an anonymous reader asked The Daily Nebraskan, “Tell me more about club soccer.”
A Wichita State attacker shoves over a UNL defender in the box and the assistant referee raises his flag, to call a foul. Everyone stands around for a moment. In frustration, the Wichita State attacker chips the ball over starting goalkeeper sophomore Patrick Diederich’s head, and it lands in the goal. Diederich shrugs, play has stopped. He scoops the ball out of the net and throws it to the spot of the free kick. The head referee instead indicates a goal.
“Everyone on the field knew it was a foul,” Diederich said. “Everybody was like ‘What, are you serious?’ And everybody tried to get the AR [assistant referee] to talk to him and apparently that guy didn’t really want to talk to his AR.”
The UNL club soccer team plays in the Kansas-Missouri Soccer League West Division, an intramural competition that has teams from all across the Great Plains compete is a table-style format. The goal given up against WSU is the only one conceded in six games for the club soccer team, the best in the division, which has helped them reach first in the league.
The reason why UNL’s club soccer team is doing so well right now is due to its defense. But, having a strong defense is more than being physically strong and quick, and it’s more than having players who can tackle well. Great defenses are built around good communication and community, something that’s important to the team.
“We have a really strong soccer community here,” Club President senior Cole Horner said. “It brings together people from all over the world.”
Horner’s belief in the team came from when he first joined, and though they all share soccer in common, they also are friends off the pitch.
Junior midfielder Nabhan Alhajri, who came to Nebraska from Oman on a state-funded scholarship two years ago, agreed with Horner. Alhajri joined the UNL men’s club soccer team during his first semester at the university. Despite knowing English, Alhajri had a difficult time adapting to native speakers in Lincoln and finding a community.
“The first month was definitely awful, to me,” Alhajri said. “[Joining the UNL club soccer team] is one of the reasons I got to talk to a lot of people. It’s one of the reasons why I developed my [language] skills.”
Alhajri started playing soccer as a winger, but has since moved to the holding midfield role. His idol at the position is Chelsea and France engine N’Golo Kanté.
“He comes from a similar background,” Alhajri said. “Struggling to get [to the top], trying to get the chance to take the opportunity, it’s what motivated me to play soccer.”
Practice, which takes place at Mabel Lee Field every Tuesday and Thursday from 6-8 p.m., focuses partly on enjoying the game. When asked why he made practices enjoyable, Horner said that no one would show up if it wasn’t fun.
“In order to win, you need to enjoy the thing you’re doing,” Alhajri said. “If you enjoy the thing, you will learn from it. And if you learn from it, good or bad, you will improve yourself.”
The team helps teach the values of hard work and teamwork through its defensive play. It takes commitment to play in the system, to show up for practice and to improve.
Another important part of defense is selflessness. When asked about what made their defense so stout, Horner, Alhajri and Diederich all complemented each other and the team. Horner complimented Diederich’s ability to organize the defensive line and Alhajri's high defensive motor, while Diederich and Alhajri complimented the defensive line’s ability. This selflessness is crucial to the defense’s success.
Defense is also a matter of problem solving. To defend, you must defend against the other team’s attackers. The diversity in the team adds more ideas about how to approach this fundamental part of soccer.
“It’s not just, you know, a bunch of kids from Omaha playing together who can all play one way,” Diederich said. “We have different ideas from different parts of the world in our case. They have different takes on how we should play or how we should adapt to a team.”
Recruiting for the team, as a result, is not a simple matter of who is the best player during tryouts. Rather, they see who has the determination to continue to improve. This approach helps to solidify a team of like-minded individuals who are committed to Nebraska’s specific style of play.
Depending on how the other team lines up, the club soccer team will change its formation or tactics to defend more effectively. To do this requires a specific kind of player. But, when done properly, can yield great results, as is evidenced by recent form.
The goal for the team, at this point, is to move onto regionals, and possibly nationals if it plays well enough. Currently, it is on track to achieve great heights this season should the team continue to emphasize what makes its defense so impressive: community, ambition and a love for the world’s game.
This article was modified on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 12:39 p.m. to correct the spelling of Alhajri's last name.