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Internationally built Medaille men settle in, eye NCAA Tournament

Eight Australians, six Englishmen, four Scots, two Spaniards, one Nigerian and one Irishman.

That international contingent makes up 22 of the 30 roster spots - and often nine of the 11 starters - on Micky Blythe's Medaille Mavericks, who came one win shy of reaching the NCAA Tournament last fall.

It's not that Blythe is against recruiting Western New York - he stresses that he's combed the area and is not focused solely on luring foreign talent.

"Being honest, I had only planned to supplement the program with a handful of international players when I arrived," he explained. "My first year I worked tirelessly around Western New York and around the state, a lot of mileage and talking to high school players.

"I noticed many local players were happy going somewhere to sit the bench or red-shirt, or because they're at a D-1 program, or have a facility or a kit that looks nice. I just want a type of player that just cares about winning games and trophies; it really doesn't matter about passport!"

Matt Burke, right, passes the ball against Buffalo State. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Scouring the globe to build a team has its own inherent challenges, beyond simply knowing if the recruit is blessed with soccer talent. Will he be able to meet college academic standards? How will he mesh with teammates? How dramatically will he have to adjust from his culture's style of soccer to the American game?

"When you put so many nationalities together, they have no real idea what the NCAA is about until the end of the season, until the end of the first year," said Blythe.

For a team that's so diverse, it would be easy to split into factions, perhaps by country but also by role.

"We've molded well as a group," said English sophomore Mitchell Ali. "We're one big group as opposed to a lot of little small groups, whereas last year it was a little more diverse in that. Our togetherness is going to make us go far this year."

Regardless of the team's makeup, the Mavs (7-4 overall, 2-1 in AMCC) enter their 5 p.m. Oct. 4 clash with D'Youville College poised to contend again for the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title, although the landscape is different than past years, when a Medaille-Penn St. Behrend final was all but certain.

Micky Blythe enters his third season as Medaille men's and women's soccer's head coach. (via Medaille)

The big picture at Medaille is Blythe, the reigning AMCC Coach of the Year, is well on his way to fulfilling his promise after taking the job as Dan Krzyzanowicz's successor just before the 2015 season.

"When I started, I discussed with Medaille a five-year plan that would get us somewhere in the NCAA Tournament by winning the AMCC or challenging to do so," Blythe said following a loss to Buffalo State. "I know Medaille have done that a lot in the past... but it's a work in progress.

The Mavs have not secured an NCAA berth since 2012, a dark stretch considering Medaille reached the national tournament five times in six years between 2005-10.

"[We've had] two recruiting classes, [with players aged] 18 and 19, so we're still learning a lot," Blythe said, recounting his tenure. "I've still got four or five guys who've been in the country only a month."

A three-game non-conference losing streak was less cause for worry and more of a litmus test for Medaille, as John Carroll (No. 6 in the country), Lycoming (No. 15) and Buffalo State (not ranked) are the caliber of foes the Mavs would face in the NCAA Tournament.

"I think we'll always be competitive in the AMCC," Blythe remarked, "but as far as the NCAA Tournament and where we want to go as a program, we're playing teams like John Carroll and Lycoming, and we realize we still have a long way to go."

Here are five more things to know about the 2017 Medaille Mavs:

*THEY'RE BACK: The international core of the team is outstanding. Sam Beesley is a returning All-AMCC first team defender, and the Australian center back has been even better in his second season, scoring three goals total, two in the dramatic 4-3 overtime win against La Roche. The No. 2 isn't a 6'4 lumbering type of defender - he's agile, smart and a motivator, with a solid mustache to boot.

Anthony Marafioti, a captain who's found his place as a marauding outside back, is the kind of prized two-way winger coaches crave. Beesley's country mate does not lack in confidence and won't back down from anyone - his entertaining one-vs.-one battle against Buffalo State redshirt-senior Luke Pavone was case in point.

Buffalo State shakes off sluggish start, overcomes Medaille

While technical midfielder James Lang - who's very gifted himself - has had trouble staying on the field this year due to injuries, Ali is the vocal, demanding, two-way central player who can make up for his absence.

"I'm not a captain but I'm a leader in the team..." contended Ali. "My job in the midfield is to get goals, defend and keep us compact."

Buffalo State's Luke Pavone, left in black, and Mitchell Ali, right, were among the best on the field in this bright non-conference match-up. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

The gems of his first recruiting class, Blythe is effusive with praise for the trio.

"They're worth their weight in gold," the third-year head coach said. "We lost the big man [Mick] Lennox last year - so Mitchell and Marafioti have assumed a senior role; Beesley is a leader by nature.

"None of these boys are past their sophomore year - I think the squad this year is stronger than it was, strongest it's been since I've been here."

It would be shortsighted not to mention Lachlan Wilkinson, the striker who earned Co-Offensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors for the AMCC last season. In 2017, the Aussie No. 9 has scored just twice on 33 shots - a sophomore slump compared to his freshman ratio of 14 goals on 74 shots - but there's still time to turn his season around.

Toss in valuable senior midfielders Jackson Hamilton and Mo Hussein, and the Mavericks do boast a mix of veterans to nurture the nine freshmen who see minutes.

Lachlan Wilkinson, in white with the ball, and Anthony Marafioti, No. 18, are two of the Mavs' leaders. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*GOALKEEPING CONCERNS: It's hard to overstate how much Medaille misses Brian Arcara, the all-conference goalkeeper who exhausted his eligibility. St. Francis High School grad Matt Gabalski had the first chance to seize the vacant role, but his stumbles have left the door open for one of three untested reserves.

"Callum Flinn is an English freshman but showing a lot of promise; he just needs NCAA experience so we’re trying to provide that," Blythe explained. "Callum Christie returns to the program and is an exceptional goalkeeper, so we have a number of options in the goalkeeping position and it's very competitive."

The position is still the team's Achilles Heel at the moment, however, and unless someone steps forward, it could cost the team another trip to the AMCC finals.

*HOW DEEP ARE THEY? Without exception, the Mavericks are excited about the potential of their bench.

"Our squad depth is a lot bigger this year, a lot better," gushed Mitchell Ali. "[There's] more people we can bring on and change the game, whereas last year it was a bit more bare."

And it's true; Blythe can alter his starting lineup for match-up reasons or to compensate for injuries more smoothly than he did in his first two years. Given Holy Gbode, Matt Burke, Kabura Elias, Stephen White, Juan Montoya and Job Ayuba are among those who've provided quality minutes off the pine.

Gbode, in particular, has been an offensive spark on the wing; the Englishman struck for a hat-trick against Thiel College, earning him AMCC Offensive Player of the Week plaudits. He's athletic, direct and relentless - three qualities that can take players a long way.

Given Holy Gbode, in white, turns as Tony Roncone of Buffalo State sticks his foot in for a tackle. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*AMCC WORRIES: Whether Medaille is down a bit from last year or the rest of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference has narrowed the gap, early indications point to a tougher path for the Mavs this fall. While the program typically has a tricky time with La Roche, it's breezed past the rest of the programs aside from arch-nemesis Behrend.

Examples are abundant from this season already: Marafioti's overtime goal eked Medaille past La Roche, a much-needed result after a shocking 4-3 loss at Mount Aloysius on Sept. 23.

"The OT goal from Mara to beat La Roche on Saturday was the most significant turning point so far," Blythe admitted. "We were like lions for 109 minutes fighting for each other until we scored the winner. The boys have finally arrived to the AMCC and looked prepared to do whatever it takes to win these matches."

*BN Soccer likes: Although he's produced just a goal and an assist so far in his freshman season, Pablo Ballesteros is the kind of tidy, creative midfielder who can spray the ball around, switch fields with aplomb and see through-balls that others can't. The Madrid native is far from a finished product, which makes his potential even more exciting.

10 things to know about Buffalo State men's soccer





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