MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Chris King found himself in uncharted territory on Dec. 20, 2022, when, for the second time in his tenure as athletic director at Robert Morris University, he had to announce a new men’s soccer head coach for a program that, officially, had only ever had three.
Robert Morris begins its 40th season Thursday at the North Athletic Complex with former Presbyterian College coach Jonathan Potter, the fourth bench boss in Colonials history, at the helm and in search of his own uncharted territory: a berth in the Horizon League final.
“The rich history and the tradition of the program amazed me,” Potter said, recalling the interview process.
“The stories from the alumni, the amount of [great] players that went here, and some of the great teams they’ve had in the past were really impressive.”
The Colonials will host VMI at 4:00 p.m. in the first of four non-conference fixtures to open their 2023 regular campaign. They’ll entertain Niagara Sunday afternoon before traveling to Bucknell Sept. 1 and longtime rival Saint Francis Sept. 5.
RMU continued along its upward trajectory in 2022. After a three-year absence, Jason O’Keefe led the team to the postseason for a second straight time with a 4-3-2 record in the Horizon and a 6-7-3 overall mark before stepping down Nov. 10, 2022 to be closer to his family in North Carolina.
His tenure, ditto the Colonials’ last season, ended in heartbreak, with a 10-man penalty shootout loss to Oakland in the Horizon League quarterfinals. However, his three-year, soup-to-nuts rebuild of the stagnant men’s program ultimately produced its first winning record in conference play since 2015, which was also the last time Robert Morris finished above .500 overall.
Now Potter, no stranger to quick turnarounds himself (Presbyterian ranked last in Division I RPI before winning the 2017 Big South Tournament in his second season), looks to continue that success while distinguishing himself from his predecessor in noticeable ways.
“It’s a different style of coaching. Coach Potter looks at the tactical side and the scientific side of soccer, and the things that directly correlate to wins, whether that’s winning first and second balls, or other little stats like that that can make a big impact on a game,” said sixth-year midfielder Nolan Hutter (5’11”, 160 lbs.), a former all-state standout at Montour who transferred from Dayton last summer to put his bonus COVID eligibility toward a degree in Finance.
“Our last staff was pretty emotional and did a good job motivating the players. But I think we’re building a stronger relationship with our new staff each day, and we’re looking to keep building that relationship over the course of the fall.”
“There are more people persons, which I think is a lot better,” said senior forward Chase Gilley (5’10”, 150 lbs.) of the new staff, which includes first-year assistant Abraham Lopez-Mendoza and goalkeepers coach Austin Gorman. “It’s not all about getting into people’s heads. Sometimes you’ve got to be there for the players.”
“We have to make sure our guys are really aligned on how we want to play, and how we conduct things on and off the field. I think that’s the most important ingredient,” Potter said. “These guys have the ability to do it.”
Gilley, another North Carolinian, also transferred in last season, with fellow striker and twin brother Logan, from UNC Greensboro. A two-time Horizon League Offensive Player of the Week, Gilley led the 2022 Colonials with seven goals and was one of six different players to record two assists.
“It comes down to my teammates. They were able to get me the ball in the right spots, so the key is them, not me,” he said. “I’m there to put the ball in the back of the net, but they do the hard work of getting the ball back and giving it to me.”
Aside from his sibling, he’ll have help from 6’6″, 200-pound Frenchman Hugo Kadima, who adds muscle to the top of Potter’s lineup after notching three goals and two assists as a junior, and from attacking midfielder Victor Koah (6’0″, 165 lbs.), a Thornton Heath, England native who made the Horizon League All-Freshman Team while featuring eight times and leading RMU rookies with 749 minutes logged.
Potter also went across the pond to give Gorman additional talent to mold, setting up an intriguing competition between the sticks. The Colonials will count on one of three freshman keepers, including Englishman Josh Lane (6’2″, 172 lbs.), to rise up and replace Friedrich Petrelli, who finished second in the Horizon League with a 1.07 goals-against average and five clean sheets.
Lane’s tour of duty with his hometown academy team at Leicester City led to a scholarship from another Premier League club, Aston Villa FC. Pushing him for the job will be Giancarlo Acosta and Kieran Gorgenyi, who earned all-state honors on their respective high school sides in Bernardsville, New Jersey and North Reading, Massachusetts.
Providing defensive support will be sophomore William Dodzi Afawubo, who comes all the way from Accra, Ghana, and senior Darren Gray. The former played 864 minutes and earned 12 caps last year, and Gray contributed three assists from the back line.
The Colonials were encouraged by their ability to spread the wealth offensively when scrimmaging former conference nemesis Mount St. Mary’s earlier this month, the first of their three preseason tune-ups.
After subsequent exhibitions against 2020 national champion Marshall and D-I newcomer Le Moyne, they only hope to avoid hemorrhaging goals with their revamped roster as effectively as they’ve scored them.
In 2022, RMU tied for the Horizon League lead with 15 goals scored across conference matches, and they conceded a league-low seven times in conference play. Mirroring that success in 2023 may prove challenging, with half of Potter’s 30-man roster, including 11 freshmen, donning blue and white kits for the first time.
“The core group of guys who have been here for a year and a half are doing a good job getting them integrated as quickly as possible,” said Hutter.
“We’ve had our team activities, and we’ve been coming together really closely,” Gilley added. “Team chemistry is right where it should be right now.”
Coming off a fifth-place finish in 2022, the fledgling squad has been picked eighth out of ten in the annual preseason Horizon League coaches’ poll. But for the first time in a long time, in a conference that has yielded six different regular-season champions in as many years, the lofty goal of NCAA Tournament participation for the first time since 2005 feels possible, even if not imminent, for Robert Morris.
“We play roughly two games a week for the next three months, and the games come very fast,” said Potter. “I think this group just has to keep a level head, and try to get better.
“Win, lose or draw, we can find improvement.”