As preseason nears for the upcoming fall soccer season, there is one team in our area which every soccer enthusiast needs to keep an eye on.
The Penn State Altoona men, led by coach Maurice "Mo'' Taylor, are going to be an awesome force in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference.
Although only in his second year at the campus as head coach, Taylor has been involved with the game his entire life. From playing the game daily in his boyhood years in Jamaica to competing in higher level leagues in his native country, Maurice possesses standout skills in every area of the game.
Since coming to the U.S., Taylor has experienced tremendous success at every level he has coached. He was the first coach in the area to take a team of local and regional players to the PA West State Cup Championships. His team narrowly lost the final to the top-rated team in the state in Beadling Soccer Club, which possessed over a half dozen Division I college players.
This year at Penn State Altoona, Taylor will be playing for the first time with most of his own recruits. Since most players transfer to University Park in their sophomore year, he will approach the season with no seniors, four juniors and the remaining players freshman.
Taylor, however, has managed to bring in players from Florida, North Carolina, and California for his squad.
There is so much interest in being part of his team because of his reputation, he has fielded in excess of 40 student-athletes trying out for the squad.
Unfortunately, Taylor can only keep 25-27 of them.
He attributes the success of the program and recruiting to a good deal of hard leg work. He goes to a number of tournaments, observes many games, and never misses out on following up on a good lead.
At one point, the team struggled in the AMCC. Last year, the Lions lost by a goal in the semi-finals and ended up taking third place by winning a consolation game and compiling a 7-3 conference record.
They have been to the conference finals twice and came away short, but this year the story could end quite differently.
Taylor attributes this year's great possibilities to a group of top quality upperclassmen and an incredible crop of talented freshman. Taylor is excited about the future because the more four-year majors offered at the campus, the longer he can keep and develop his key players.
For many years acting as the director of coaching for the Altoona Soccer Club, Taylor's manual of coaching drills were used by nearly every coach in every age group. He was always willing to come and work with any team at any time. His uncanny ability to assess a player's strengths and weaknesses in a very short period of time is absolutely amazing. He has a firm approach to coaching, a multitude of skill-building drills, excellent technical knowledge that he has been willing to share with any area coach who has asked. He is often heard at practice saying, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
The road to the AMCC championship may once again go through the Behrend Campus, where former PSU Altoona coach John Parente is now the assistant coach. This will be a friendly, but intense, rivalry.
The strong blend of talent and youth on the Penn State Altoona squad should be evident even in the first game of the season. It is definitely worthwhile for all area soccer enthusiasts who want to see top-notch collegiate play on the local level to get to the Altoona Campus games at Spring Run Stadium.
The incredible excitement brought about by the U.S. Women's World Cup and its tremendous level of play up to the finals - including a game for the ages against Brazil - had even those that did not follow soccer glued to the television to watch these women play. Visions of the 1999 team with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain danced in people's minds as they watched players like Abby Wambach and Hope Solo.
Unfortunately, that Cinderella dream came to a crashing halt in the final against a Japanese team the Americans had beaten of 25 times in the past without a loss.
The U.S. Women's World Cup team served as an excellent example of never underestimating your opponent. After each score the U.S. notched, it suffered a defensive breakdown of which the never-say-die Japanese team took advantage.
The U.S., which was overcome by nerves in the shootout, made some monumental errors. Never should a top player in the world put a penalty kick 6 feet over the crossbar.
The U.S. did not play a complete game with intensity and focus as did the Japanese. As some players admitted, beating yourself hurts a lot worse than getting beat.
Changes at the top
The Altoona Soccer Club has undergone a complete change of leadership. Long-time president Mitch Swanger has stepped down and will be replaced by Coach Eric Haugh.
Haugh has injected the club with a youthful element that has been missing for a number of years. He now has five or six teams of U10s and U12s involved in the game on both the boys and girls side.
Haugh is committed to both player and coaching development for all those involved with the club.
Hats off to Swanger for keeping the club together and handling a multitude of jobs from field manager to referee assignor to team manager as well as president.