PHILADELPHIA - Five years ago, a quintet of high school soccer players from three distinct regions of the country were narrowing down their college choices in the hopes of becoming college soccer stars. On Saturday (7:30 p.m. vs. Princeton), after an Ivy League title, two NCAA Tournament appearances, and a pair of historical defensive streaks, the Penn men's soccer Class of 2012 steps on Rhodes Field one last time.
For Christian Barreiro, Thomas Brandt, Eric Guo, Jake Levin, and Nick Unger, the decisions to make Penn their home over the past four years were at the same time both unique and with a sense of commonality. Three players - Barreiro, Brandt and Levin - had all grown up as soccer players together on national club power Casa Mia Bays. Unger had been exposed to the Penn program by his older brother, Kevin, who starred for the Red and Blue from 2005-08. Guo, a California native, caught the coaching staff's eye at a summer tournament and again at Penn's own summer camp in Philadelphia.
While the "road to Rhodes" for all five may have been different, the driving reasons why Penn was the ultimate choice carried common themes.
"I took a number of visits to Penn during the recruiting process," Levin said. "The coaching staff had us all staying with seniors on the team at that time, and those guys showed so much pride and passion for the program. It was contagious. They were able to convey what it meant to put on the Penn uniform and what the legacy the current guys carry on is all about."
For Barreiro, it was the overt communication style of the players that sold him.
"Everyone on the team opened up and offered a glimpse of what the whole program is all about," the Columbia, Md. native said. "They made it difficult to not envision yourself playing for the Red and Blue."
Unger, with the possibility of joining his older brother looming, looked to Kevin for guidance while making his decision.
"Kevin was pretty convinced that Penn was the right place for me, but he also let me make my own decision," Nick said. "I trusted him and the three years of experience he had, but when I got to sense it for my own, the pride and excitement I could feel within the program was what settled it."
With three players from one club team as part of this class, it is easy to assume they were some sort of package deal. That was not the case, however, as all three made their decisions independently.
"It wasn't planned at all," Brandt, the first of the three Casa Mia Bays to commit to Penn, said. "I signed on first, and Jake and Christian followed later on. That was fortunate for the team, because those guys could have played anywhere."
Levin followed shortly, with Penn as his first choice throughout the process.
"I always felt welcome at Penn, and know that Tommy and Christian did as well," he said. "I know, for me personally, it was a huge benefit to know I would be playing with guys I was so comfortable with as soccer players and as friends."
The last of the three to confirm his move to West Philadelphia was Barreiro. While he made a few other visits to schools, his time on campus at Penn, combined with the knowledge that two of his best friends had chosen the Quakers, made the decision a relatively easy one for Barreiro. He cancelled visits to Brown and Princeton and let Coach Fuller know he was coming to Penn.
"This was a unique group," head coach Rudy Fuller said while thinking back to the recruiting season leading up to the Class of 2012 joining his team. "It is unusual for us to have three players from one club team. They were each unique in their abilities, but possessed a winning mentality. It put us on the map, nationally, and without question they have lived up to that billing while at Penn."
The national presence of this group came from Unger - who hails from Wisconsin - and Guo, a Sacramento, Calif. product. Unger, with his family ties to the Penn program and high national finishes on the youth scene of his own, was a natural fit with the Quakers as a potential prospect. Guo, meanwhile, came from under the radar after catching Fuller's eye in Dallas at a club tournament and falling in love with Penn while attending Fuller's Elite 300 camp.
"Nick brought an ultra-competitive streak with him," said Fuller. "He had a familiarity with the program and knew what it would take to win here. With Eric, we knew he was well-coached and brought a lot to the table as a defender. After we got to know him better as a player and as a person, we really felt like we had lucked out when he chose Penn."
With choices made and commitments issued, the five then-freshmen arrived in the fall of 2008 about to embark on one of the greatest seasons in Penn men's soccer history. Getting on the field presented a staunch challenge in preseason camp that year, with 12 seniors on the roster. On most teams, that type of seniority can intimidate newcomers. For Penn, however, the directive from the coaching staff makes it easier to overcome potential partiality based on age. Coach Fuller has a simple request - force him to find you playing time. The five freshmen started to do just that.
"As a coaching staff, we always say that the best 11 players will play, regardless of class," said the 14th-year head coach. "Over the course of preseason, it became clear that Jake and Christian were guys who needed to be on the field. Eventually, Tommy, Nick and Eric earned their playing time as well. I credit those guys for being prepared as freshmen and I really credit the older guys who handled the whole situation with class and maturity. Otherwise, the special times later in the year may not have happened."
When asked about their expectations coming into that season, Brandt, Barreiro and Levin had thought processes that mirror their style of play over the past four seasons. Brandt said he was more analytical of the situation, "It was comfortable having some of my best friends there, but I learned to always appreciate the playing time I did have and work hard to earn more of it." For Barreiro, it didn't matter where he played; he just wanted to be on the field and to "contribute in any way possible." Levin, the vocal leader of the defense, was not shy about his intentions, thinking before he came to camp that he would "start right away" before realizing during the grind of two-a-days that all he wanted was "to make the travel roster."
For freshmen warned that college soccer would be different than high school and club, the beginning to their careers may have left them wondering if it would really be that difficult. Penn started the 2008 season with a 7-0-3 record and did not allow a goal until the eighth game of the season, a span of 673:25 for a new Penn record. The Quakers went 5-1-1 in the Ivy League that year, defeating Harvard in overtime on the last day of the season to win the League title. The play on the field and the character building off the field still resonates with this year's seniors. To a man, they consider that win over the Crimson to be the highlight of their time at Penn. The pride and passion of winning Ivy title sticks with them. The confidence and maturity of those that showed the way drives their leadership style during their own senior campaign.
"There was no better feeling than seeing Loukas Tasigianis' shot trickle in against Harvard," Eric Guo said. "Those seniors were such a great group of players to model ourselves after. They were tight-knit, hard-working, and all about earning your stripes. To be a part of giving them an Ivy title was special for the whole team."
Unger, who had the benefit of Kevin's brotherly guidance, also credits the example-setting the Class of 2009 did.
"We had no idea what we were doing as college soccer players," he stated. "But, they just laid it out for us. They were direct and simultaneously concerned about making us better soccer players and better people. I know we have tried to follow that lead again this year in our leadership style. That needs to get passed down each year to keep this team on the course it deserves to be on."
For Levin, it was his partners on the defensive end that showed the way.
"I was real fortunate to have John Elicker and Ryan Porch playing alongside me," said the four-year center back. "They were class individuals on the field and off. So much of who I am today is a result of that year playing with those seniors. As a freshman, what more could you ask for than great mentors and an Ivy League ring?"
In the three seasons following the title run of 2008, the Class of 2012 has been unable to duplicate the championship results of their freshmen season. That doesn't mean success has eluded the Red and Blue, entirely, though. After a 2009 campaign where Penn went 6-8-3, the special moments returned in 2010.
In an almost uncanny fashion, the 2010 success was forged upon stifling defense and opportune attacks. The Quakers won their first four matches, and went on lockdown in the middle of the season, posting a six-match win streak and a shutout run of 549:40 over seven matches. That shutout streak is the second-longest in program history - behind the ridiculous run to start this group's first season. A late-season loss to Princeton denied a second championship ring, but the Quakers won nine one-goal games and posted a 12-4 record in the regular season to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship. With the great regular season giving Penn a home game, Barreiro sent Rhodes Field into delirium with an overtime goal to defeat Bucknell, 1-0, for just the ninth NCAA Tournament win in program history.
"Christian is a very confident player," Fuller said. "That Bucknell game is a prime example of him putting the team on his back. He has done that again this season countless times. He is so creative and always comes through in the clutch."
With one last crack at an Ivy title on the line this season, things simply haven't bounced Penn's way. An 89th-minute goal allowed against Cornell put Penn behind early, and two losses on controversial penalty kicks sandwiched around a double overtime heartbreaker against Yale have denied the quintet a second piece of jewelry. It would be easy to focus solely on personal loss for this group, to dwell on opportunities lost instead of celebrate lessons learned and experience gained. Fortunately for these seniors - and the state of the program, in general - reminders of what it was like just three brief falls ago have not allowed focus to be lost.
"When you win in your first year, you obviously would love to have it happen again," said Brandt, a two-year captain. "The Ivy League is tough, though, and there are no guarantees. Even though things haven't gone our way, we've tried to ensure that the approach has not changed. We want to win every game we have left. We were trained that it doesn't matter what the situation is, or who we are playing, just go out there and compete."
His backfield stalwart, Levin, echoes Brandt's thoughts.
"Winning the Ivy League was harder than anything I ever had to do on a soccer field," said a three-time national champ. "It meant more than any other title. After that win, we tried to carry it over for the next three years, the mindset that we could - and should - do it again. Obviously, it hasn't happened, but we've tried to pass on, just as we were entrusted back in that '08 season, that a winning mentality and spirit is the first step toward a winning result."
Barreiro is often noticeable on the field during the run of play as the de facto conductor from his center midfield spot. He has played multiple positions over his four years and been a driving force when Penn is setting up a restart. For a player who has been involved in many important plays, he points to what happens off the field as what he works on the most as a senior leader.
"I remember the things I needed the most help with when I first got here were the mental aspects of the Ivy League season. Playing, at its core, is easy. We all can play at a high level to be on an Ivy League roster. But, that first time you go on the road to a hostile environment, like we did in '08 at Dartmouth (a 1-0 win over perhaps the most talented team this group has faced in its four years) it can be overwhelming. I had no idea what to expect, and the older guys made it a more comfortable experience for me. That is what I have tried to pass down this season."
As the season winds down, time for commemorating has started to begin. Senior Day on Homecoming is one of those chances to reflect on careers and experiences while donning a Penn uniform. When asked to discuss what they will remember most about the past four years, while acknowledge that the soccer has been hugely important, it is family and friendships that are mentioned most.
"We might have the best attendance among family members of any team we see," Brandt said. "So many of our families, they just don't miss games ... and they haven't over the course of our whole careers. I am so thankful for everything they have down for me as a player and as a person."
For Unger, playing at Penn afforded him and his family a unique opportunity which hadn't previously presented itself.
"I had never been able to play with my older brother, Kevin, before my freshman season," he said. "In high school, I was on JV when he was on varsity. But that first year, in the game against Mercer, we finally got to be on the field at the same time. I know that meant a lot to our whole family."
Levin, whose older brother moved to Philadelphia this year for graduate school, has experienced family ties first hand this season.
"It has been nice to have unconditional support from Brent this season," said Jake. "We haven't lived together since I was in eighth grade as he went to college and moved away. Now, when I come back to the apartment after a tough practice or game, my biggest role model is right there to help me sort things out. At the same time, I can't imagine being closer to any group of guys than I am to the other four seniors. We have a real tight bond, and I know we will stay close the rest of the way."
Barreiro, whose father can be found easily in the crowd with a fluorescent pink hat on, also counts himself lucky to have such strong support.
"They have been to every game, whether it was at Penn or otherwise," he said. "My dad is honest with me about how things are going, but he supports me every step of the way."
Guo, whose family still resides across the country in California, has relied on his classmates to be a support structure over the past four years.
"These guys have been my best friends since that first week of preseason," he said. "This has been a truly awesome experience and these guys have made it so. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
One aspect of the relationship between the five members of the Class of 2012 which may not be so copacetic is off the field competition, though. For the past three years, the group has engaged in legendary battles at their home in games such as Sorry!, washers, and video games. With Levin moved out this year to live with his brother, battle lines have been drawn between the former Casa Mia Bays of Barreiro and Brandt against Guo and Unger. Ask all four who is the most dominant and which side is ahead, and like the group's personalities, the answers are unique and at the same time, loyal.
"The third floor of me and Christian is dominant at washers and board games," said Brandt.
"The third floor claims to have the lead, but we are tied right now in washers and Sorry!" said Guo.
"We never take a day off, it seems. If practice is cancelled, we are out playing washers and usually Eric and I win." Unger claimed.
"The FIFA games get pretty aggressive, but thankfully we usually win." Barreiro stated.
On a more serious note, Barreiro credited the competitive streak inside his classmates for translating to the field when the team has had its back against the wall.
"When we happen to trail in a game, I love our resiliency," the team's leader in points said. "I look at the game at Columbia this year when we were behind by a pair of goals early. Tommy Brandt was class that game, coming through with two goals. As a group, we never doubted we could come back in that game and you could see the whole team believed. No one panicked and as a complete unit we came back for the win."
Resiliency and fortitude will again be on display this Saturday when Penn hosts Princeton in the final home game for these seniors. There will be no Ivy title on the line, no potential NCAA bid to earn. But there is a bitter taste from last year left to erase. It was the Tigers who won a game in Princeton to claim the League championship and deny this class a second ring. The team's captain - and the senior class' quiet leader - Thomas Brandt knows there are few chances left to leave a mark as a Quaker.
"I want to do whatever it takes to win," he said. "It doesn't matter if it is a big defensive stop or pitching in on offense with a goal. These games have to matter to the players in Red and Blue as much as an NCAA Tournament game. That is what we've been taught all along."
Levin, whose heart can usually be found proudly displayed on his sleeve, put it like only he could.
"I take it personally the way this season has gone," he said. "We had high expectations, but it just hasn't worked out. Now, we have two games left to prove just how talented we are as a team and to show the guys who will carry the torch what it means to play with pride in yourselves and for your school."
It is that pride and experience that Unger will take with him when the season ends and graduation looms.
"These four seasons have far exceeded my expectations," said the prospective law student who has already started submitting applications. "There is nothing that compares to four years of representing your school on the field. We've been lucky to win an Ivy title, make two NCAA Tournaments and compete for a national title. We have just been tremendously lucky."
The closing words belong to Levin, almost appropriately so.
"It's not the wins and losses that will ultimately define these past years, because things happen in soccer," he said. "It really is the relationships that we have built along the way. To have the younger guys text and let you know the influence you've had on them, that is important to me. If this class can be remembered in the way the seniors who brought us along are, then we have done our jobs."