From the moment Loyola men's soccer head coach Steve Nichols stepped onto the field during a New York Red Bulls Academy showcase, he knew almost immediately that he wanted -- needed -- to sign Brian Saramago.
To put it lightly, Loyola did not look like a desirable landing spot. The program wasn't a powerhouse like Maryland or Duke; it stood at the bottom of the Patriot League with a 5-8-2 record in 2015 and was winless in league play.
For that reason, Nichols did not want to bother with players on the Red Bulls' field, on which stood some of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Sure, they were great players, but how many of them would even consider signing with Loyola over some of the top Division I programs?
But his assistant, Mike Marciano, convinced him to head to the field to watch the game that was being played. It would just be for 10 minutes. And in that brief span of time, Saramago scored three goals.
Coaches aren't supposed to speak to players on the field, but Nichols briefly spoke to Saramago once the player had been subbed out of a 5-1 drubbing. He asked Saramago if he was a junior or a senior. When Saramago replied that he was a junior, Nichols gave one response: "I'll be calling you tonight."
Saramago officially joined the Greyhounds in 2016 along with one of his closest friends, Barry Sharifi. From 2016-2018, the Greyhounds won 31 games and made the six-team Patriot League tournament each season, while both players have racked up the accolades.
Loyola is picked to finish first in the league in 2019. Saramago and Sharifi, now seniors, have been named preseason Offensive Player and Midfielder of the Year, respectively. The duo is determined lead the Greyhounds to something the program hasn't accomplished in a decade: a league championship.
"These guys have helped us sell this program as a special place because of how talented they are and what these two guys stand for and what our program stands for," Nichols said.
Saramago and Sharifi did not play together much before they both signed with Loyola, but their connection grew almost immediately. Both New York natives, they met while playing for the Red Bulls, and "from the start, right away" they just clicked, Saramago said.
"We had a good relationship," Saramago said. "We carpooled from home, so I feel like a lot of the hour and a half, two-hour car rides there and back helped us build that relationship up. I just feel like from the start, me and him just clicked, and we have this telepathic relationship on the field."
Sharifi said one of the first things he noticed about Saramago was his desire and willingness to do anything to win. He will even call his teammates out if he feels the need to do so, he recalled with a laugh.
"Whether it's training or in a game, he'll put his body on the line," Sharifi said. "He'll scream at you, even when you don't want to hear it. But that's fine. He wants us to win and have us succeed as much as possible."
Saramago is what Nichols referred to as a "marked man" on the field ever since his freshman year. Everyone on the opposing team knows where Saramago is and will do anything to prevent him from scoring. And it is not difficult to see why; in three seasons, he has accounted for 66 points and 26 goals on 86 shots on goal.
That is where Sharifi, who has 13 goals and 16 assists of his own during his career, becomes important. While most opponents are focused on making sure Saramago doesn't score, it opens up opportunities for Sharifi to make plays.
"Barry is definitely the playmaker of the team," Saramago said. "So even though I'm probably considered the marked man, I feel like he doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's a two-time Patriot League Midfielder of the Year, so I feel like he should be as much of a marked man as me. Me taking away certain defenders ... is pretty difficult because if they don't mark Barry, he could easily punish them as much as I can."
Nichols admits that he gives Saramago and Sharifi a longer leash that he does with most players because he know how talented they are and how much work they put into being pivotal pieces in the program. He is also quick to say that he is not shy about letting them know when they need to do better.
An example of that was after Loyola's Aug. 17 scrimmage against Maryland. The exhibition game ended in a 2-2 tie, but Loyola was up, 2-1, before the reigning national champions tied the score.
Nichols said Saramago and Sharifi did not have their best day. If they had, Nichols believes the score would have been at least 3-1 in Loyola's favor. Two days later, Nichols took both players aside during the team training session and "let them both have it."
"I don't do that to everybody, but my expectations are a lot higher than other guys on the team," Nichols said. "I'm not being mean to other guys on our team, but [Saramago and Sharifi] can do things that other kids on our team can't do. So they're going to be held to a higher standard."
The responsibility of holding Saramago and Sharifi accountable doesn't solely rest on Nichols' shoulders, though. The pair does the same thing for each other.
"You have expectations of each other," Sharifi said. "So when we're not meeting that expectation, one of us is going to get after the other. It's really important that we do that and we're learning to do that a lot more. It's kind of hard to do that when you have a relationship with someone, but in order to have a good relationship with someone you have to hold them to that standard."
Nichols thinks Saramago and Sharifi's jobs are going to get much easier this year. Loyola has a talented group of young players who are going to contribute right away, so opposing teams won't be able to focus on the duo all the time.
That adds more pressure and expectations to what is already predicted to be a big season for the Greyhounds. But that doesn't seem to bother Saramago or Sharifi. All they're worried about it putting in the right amount of work every day, because they know that will lead them to success.
"We're trying to build a motto of taking it day by day, not looking too far into the season," Sharifi said. "Sometimes I think we try to look to the semifinal already, especially when it comes to the Patriot League. So just taking it day by day every training session ... just relieves that pressure and lets us enjoy the time left we have at Loyola."
Photo Credit: Craig Chase/Loyola Athletic Communications