When former Loyola soccer standout Steve Nichols took over the Greyhounds men's soccer program, he didn't expect instant success.
During his first season as head coach in 2014, Loyola went 5-8-4 overall and finished seventh in the Patriot League. But what the team's losing record doesn't show is that of the Greyhounds' eight losses, five were one-goal games. And they recorded ties against College Cup participant UMBC as well as Patriot League second-place finisher Navy.
So what does Loyola need to push it over the edge in close games?
"Special players," Nichols said. "Special players win big games for you. ... I think we have some pretty good players here that are finally starting to understand what it takes to win and the work that goes into winning on a consistent basis. But we lack that special guy. ... We're starting to get those guys, and we're going to continue to get them. .... We have very, very bright days ahead of us."
Loyola does have a standout player in goal. Matt Sanchez is entering his junior season with the Greyhounds and played with the Puerto Rican national team this summer.
Sanchez started all 17 games for Loyola in 2014, recording a .787 save percentage and four shutouts.
"Matt's been a winner everywhere he's been," Nichols said. "He's a very, very talented goalkeeper, and he has the capability to be special. I think he's starting to realize that. His leadership and playing in programs that have won and ... the experience of playing in World Cup qualifiers, especially, will help carry his leadership onto the field and help us get to the next level."
But in order to compete with some of the top soccer schools in the area, such as UMBC and Navy, Loyola will need more than a standout player in goal. Nichols said in order to compete with the best, you have to find the right players, and that is a process in itself.
Loyola graduated top scorers Joseph Cahalan and Connor Thompson, who combined for seven of the team's 12 goals in 2014. However, Nichols said the team has some top talent coming in.
The Greyhounds' 2015 recruiting class is led by back Mickey Watson, whom Nichols expects to see playing time right away. Loyola also added highly touted 6-foot-3 midfielder Sam Carter, who turned down offers from several Atlantic Coast Conference programs to play with Loyola, according to reports.
Loyola's young talent will be put to the test early, as Loyola takes on UMBC Sept. 12. The Retrievers made an unprecedented run to the College Cup semifinals in 2014, only to fall to Virginia, 1-0.
Nichols said the proximity, along with the familiarity among the players and coaching staff, creates a local rivalry with UMBC. And after tying the Retrievers in 2014, Nichols said they are ready for the rematch.
"I thought it was one of highlights of our season for us to go over to UMBC and in front of a nice crowd and draw, 1-1, in a game that we were leading in," Nichols said. "It says something about the potential of the guys we have here and what they can do. It wasn't like it was a fluke. ... It was a fairly even game. If we continue to get back to where our program should be, I think we're going to keep forging that rivalry more and more every day."
Nichols acknowledged the job UMBC head coach Pete Caringi has done with the program, but he also pointed out that Loyola is building its own program with its own identity.
"I think UMBC is really successful at what they do," Nichols said. "... [UMBC] had seven or eight guys who played club soccer or high school soccer for me ... and they transferred to UMBC, and it was that group of players that made their run for them. Those kids were winners. I think we expect to get those guys right out of the gate. We're going to try to get those players, initially, and not get them in the transfer market. I think we're a little bit different than them in that sense."
Nichols added, "We're both successful in our own way."
Baltimore-area soccer fans will get a taste of who is more successful come Sept. 12.