The Huskies will soon find out if they are the top men’s college soccer team in the nation, but they have already proved they might be the most resilient.
Somehow, some way, Washington is back in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, with the No. 7 seed Huskies (12-3) facing Pittsburgh (15-3) at 10 a.m. (PDT) Monday in Cary, North Carolina, for a chance to earn the program’s first berth in the Final Four.
The Huskies lost two stars just before the season after they were drafted in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, but they thrived anyway, finishing second in the Pac-12.
They lost three more players — including leading scorer Dylan Teves — just before the tournament started because of COVID protocol, then beat Grand Canyon 2-0 and Missouri State 2-0 for their second straight Elite Eight berth.
How did the Huskies do it?
It’s the motto and the mindset the team has adopted. No matter which 11 players are on the field, they have to get the job done.
“We’re missing a few guys, but our team has always been any 11 can go out there and win,” said junior Charlie Ostrem, the Pac-12 defender of the year who led the conference with 11 assists. “We’ve always felt we’re a really deep team.”
Said UW coach Jamie Clark: “You can embrace something (like Any 11), but to act upon it is more difficult, and it proves that guys are talented and ready because they’ve really stepped up.”
It certainly helps that Ostrem, from Shoreline, has been one of the 11 all season. He started as a sophomore last season, but was overshadowed by defenders Ethan Bartlow and Freddy Kleemann, who left the team after being drafted in late January.
Enter Ostrem into a starring role. Until this season, being named to the Pac-12 academic honor roll was the only postseason accolade for Ostrem, a business major with nearly a 3.7 grade-point average.
“I’ve always been the small kid,” said the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Ostrem, who started playing soccer when he was 7. “I was good when I was younger, but I was always small. When I was 10 or 11, I was on the B team C team. I’ve never really gotten recognition until this year, so it has been a weird experience for me because I’ve always been the underdog, which I like.
“I really feel like I’ve been doing the same things I was doing last year, but maybe I’ve had a little bit more luck with assists. … I really credit my team and not myself. I’ve been lucky to get some recognition, and it will be someone else next year.”
That might be, but Clark said Ostrem is a different player this season.
“His growth over the (coronavirus) shutdown was unbelievable,” Clark said. “The two guys who grew the most were Freddy Kleemann — who went pro — and Charlie. They took their games to another level over that break and it was awesome to see. They came back and they were fitter, stronger and more comfortable — they just made strides that no one else matched.
“I am proud of them getting the rewards. I know it’s about the team and winning, but it’s also nice when you put a lot of work in and other people and other teams notice it.”
The 11 assists no doubt are a big reason Ostrem has received postseason accolades. He credits the coaches for devising game plans that allow him to go forward often, but he has to be ready to retreat quickly.
“It can be really tiring, and it shows when I am gassed at the end of the game,” Ostrem said.
Clark said it’s no accident that Ostrem has so many assists.
“He’s got a great left foot, and we give him permission to go and we don’t hold him back,” the coach said. “Guys also realize if Charlie has the ball, that chances are a great service is coming into the box, ‘so I might as well get in there because I am going to get a chance.’ “
Ostrem is thinking about team accomplishments these days. Having Teves and fellow forward Gio Miglietti return from COVID-19 protocol certainly boosts UW’s chances to upset Pitt.
Ostrem is roommates with Teves, Miglietti and defender Michael Rojas — who is not cleared to play Monday — and it was the Huskies’ good fortune that Ostrem had been staying with his girlfriend because he would have been out too.
It was the first time all season the team had a positive test for COVID-19, and the timing could not have been worse.
But because the Huskies won twice without the missing players, the season didn’t end with Teves and Miglietti forced to watch. Ostrem said that was “super important” to him, as is the chance to make amends for the 2-1 quarterfinal loss last season, to Georgetown, a match UW led 1-0 until a pair of late Hoyas goals.
“We’re more mentally prepared,” Ostrem said. “I have to be honest. I was nervous and scared (against Georgetown). I wasn’t really ready for the moment and this year I’m more than ready. I am just excited, which is different from the anxiousness I felt last year.”
Win or lose, Clark is proud of his team.
“Internally, we always talk about maximizing our potential, and getting better throughout the course of the season,” he said. “I feel like we’re doing that and we’ve done that. We’re obviously going to be greedy and we want to keep playing — and the goal is a title — but I am proud of what these guys have done.”