A father’s remark during lunch in Central America might have provided a key in the University of Akron’s quest for its second NCAA men’s soccer championship in three seasons.
UA coach Caleb Porter was practically sheepish last week when he conceded how he and associate head coach Jared Embick “almost laughed off” the recommendation.
Last spring while serving as coach of the U-23 national team, Porter visited Costa Rica, where he dined with Reynaldo Brenes, father of Zips junior Reinaldo Brenes. During the conversation, Porter said the elder Brenes suggested, “You should give him a try at forward.”
Brenes was a midfielder when Porter recruited Brenes out of the Edison Academic Center in Florida, where he played at the IMG Academy with former UA stars Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie, Blair Gavin, Anthony Ampaipitakwong and current teammate Scott Caldwell. Even after sophomore striker Darren Mattocks was selected second overall in the 2012 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, Brenes seemed destined to stay at mid.
“Always back home I played higher up the field,” Brenes said during an interview last Friday at the UA student union. “When I moved to Florida, the only position available for me to play right away was holding midfielder. So I started there. My second year I played attacking mid, but one of our holding mids left. The only possibility was to move me down there.”
Until Sept. 14, that’s where Brenes stayed.
His first two years at UA, Brenes was plagued by injuries. He arrived as a freshman with a groin problem that lingered for seven months. As a sophomore, he battled a left hamstring injury all season. He played in 26 total games and UA won the national title in 2010, but Brenes made only four starts and scored just one goal with five assists in that span. His best performance was a two-assist, six-shot effort at Buffalo in 2011, when Porter said Brenes was “a man among boys.”
But with his training limited, Brenes’ confidence lagged.
Last summer in his native Costa Rica, Brenes returned to his old spot. He trained with second-tier players of Saprissa, the most successful club in the region. Brenes said the coach was one he had had in youth soccer, but the man “didn’t remember me that much.”
When practice began June 20, Brenes was an attacking mid. By July 10, Brenes had moved into a striker spot.
That hadn’t happened when Reynaldo Brenes, who runs a plant that processes peanuts, coffee and plantains, had lunch with Porter. But the father knew his son’s soccer history and couldn’t resist mentioning he could do more.
“We kind of laughed at it but we were like, ‘You never know, maybe his dad knows more than we know,’ ” Porter said, recalling his and Embick’s reaction. “As it turns out, I guess he did.”
After the only loss of UA’s season, a 3-1 setback at then-No. 17 Notre Dame on Sept. 9, Porter and Embick decided they weren’t getting enough out of what Porter calls “the No. 9 spot” of center striker. Freshman Alfred Koroma and senior Thomas Schmitt were rotating there.
“They were doing OK, but our team wasn’t jelling in the attack like we had hoped,” Porter said.
Koroma was hospitalized with a staph infection and was unavailable Sept. 14 against No. 10 St. John’s. When they had learned of Brenes’ summer experience, Porter had begun training Brenes as a second-team striker. Finally, Embick spoke up.
“Jared came in and said, ‘I think we’ve got to try Reinaldo,’ ” Porter remembered. “I immediately agreed. It had been something we’d kind of talked about a little bit before the year, perhaps. But because we had Tommy and Alfred we didn’t think we’d make the move.”
There was more juggling. Freshman Dillon Serna went from left back to forward, and freshman Phil Fives started at left back. Junior Robbie Derschang has since become the primary left back, with freshman Saad Abdul-Salaam also seeing time there.
The result of Brenes’ move wasn’t immediate. He went scoreless in his first three starts. Then a hat trick Sept. 29 at home against Buffalo started an eight-game string that saw Brenes score 10 goals.
On Tuesday, UA (15-1-2) moved into the No. 1 spot in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll. The Zips host the Mid-American Conference Tournament this weekend, opening play at 7:30 p.m. today against Bowling Green. The championship is set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
To help its national-championship hopes, UA has its eye on a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Thursday and concludes with the College Cup Dec. 7-9 in Hoover, Ala. Brenes’ contributions have helped keep that dream alive.
“He’s been a huge key to our success in the last 11 games,” Porter said. “Not just him scoring, but our overall attacking chemistry has been better since he’s been in there.”
Going into this weekend, Brenes is the Zips’ leading goal scorer (10), while Caldwell is their points leader (24).
“He’s strong so when we play the ball in to him he can hold the ball up,” Porter said of Brenes. “When we get crosses he’s good in the air. He’s pretty fast so he can run behind the defense. And he’s pretty clinical. He’s had 37 shots, 20 of them on goal, and he’s scored 10 goals. That’s a very good strike rate.”
Brenes, 20, seems to have made a huge leap in his new role.
“I really wanted it. I really wanted to play up top,” he said. “Last spring they played me forward in one of the wide spots and I was doing well, but ups and downs, I was coming up with injuries, I wasn’t feeling really confident.
“This year when they put me out there I really felt prepared to take the position.”
Until Reinaldo, tennis had been the main focus in the Brenes family. Brenes said his father played the sport at a Florida community college and sisters Erika and Andrea participated, the latter playing at the University of Alabama. Brenes tried it, too, but chose soccer when he was 15.
Now Brenes may have found his niche, even as Porter leaves in December to coach the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and Embick takes over as UA coach.
“I still think you could play him in the middle and he’d be great,” Porter said. “But with us losing so many strikers, it was a necessity to try him there. Jared’s plan is to play him there.
“Hopefully he’ll be one of the top strikers in the country next year.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.