- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Budget willing, a statue of Clive Charles should soon stand in the small plaza that fronts the soccer complex bearing the late coach's name on the campus of the University of Portland. And while it's fitting that future generations will be ushered in by a likeness of the man who built national powers out of the men's and women's soccer programs at a tiny Catholic school in the shadow of Pac-10 behemoths, this year's women's team is sculpting a fitting tribute of its own through the mediums of grass and goals.
Led by fifth-year seniors Stephanie Lopez and Angie Woznuk, the only remaining players from Charles' final recruiting class, the Pilots remain a favorite in the national championship race despite a season-long run of injuries and absences that might have scuttled seasons, let alone championship aspirations, for other programs.
The Pilots opened the season without the services of Lopez or highly touted redshirt freshman Sophie Schmidt because of national team commitments at the Women's World Cup in China (Lopez with the United States and Schmidt with Canada). But Portland still managed to beat No. 6 Florida State 2-1 in its opener with a starting lineup that included three freshmen and a goalkeeper in UCLA transfer Kelsey Davis who was playing her first game with the program and her first college game of any kind in almost two years.
Auspicious though that win was, the momentum quickly faded when in the span of a week the Pilots lost twin sisters and key offensive threats Megan and Rachael Rapinoe to season-ending ACL tears. It was Megan's second ACL tear in her left knee in less than a year, the first having ruined her chance to make the United States World Cup roster while opening the door for her sister's breakout scoring performance after Rachael shifted to striker last season.
With sophomore Megan Sweeney, who has yet to play this season due to a knee injury of her own, also out of the lineup, Portland headed to Los Angeles in late September for games against UCLA and USC already missing five of an ideal starting 11. The results, a pair of one-goal losses against teams currently ranked in the top 10, weren't surprising.
"We've always had little injuries here and there, but never like this," Woznuk said. "In all my life, with all the teams I've been on, I've never experienced so many injuries in one season. It's been pretty tough to deal with this year, but I think it has made us stronger. It really brought us together, in a sense of we realize how precious the season is."
But after beating rival Santa Clara last weekend 2-0 to move to 13-3-0 on the season, Portland is in firm control of the West Coast Conference and in position to claim a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by Garrett Smith, who first played for and then coached under Charles for 15 years, they've done by playing exactly as Charles lived.
"He was able to adapt," Smith said of what made Charles unique. "I just think, at the end of the day, he wasn't rigid. He was willing to adapt to the changing environment. Things are changing every day with nutrition, fitness and everything else in the world and he was secure enough with what he was to change with that environment."
The connection with Charles is more than just a convenient metaphor or a name on a plaque outside the stadium that sits on a bluff overlooking downtown Portland, where Charles settled into his coaching career after a professional playing career that included stops in what is now known as the English Premier League and the North American Soccer League. Woznuk and Lopez may represent the last physical connection to Charles on the field, but even the players recruited after he succumbed to cancer less than 12 months after winning his first national championship in 2002 sometimes talk about him in the present tense.
"You can't not think of one and think of the other," Megan Rapinoe said. "When you say UP soccer, you think of Clive and vice versa. He is this program; he started this program. And it's hard to pass down what he really meant to this program through generations, but obviously our coaches all played under him and I think that's huge. He just embodies everything that this program is polishing your boots every day, pulling up your socks, being professional, just the style of play that we play. He is UP soccer and I think forever will be."
So even after they lost the Rapinoe sisters to injury and subsequently dropped back-to-back one-goal decisions to UCLA and USC, the Pilots didn't come apart at the seams. Freshmen like midfielders Elli Reed and Keelin Winters and defenders Jessica Tsao and Sara Jackman, part of the nation's seventh-rated recruiting class, made the most of the opportunity to see the field early in their careers, and when Schmidt and Lopez returned from the World Cup, the lineup got a boost as significant as the hits it had already taken.
"I don't know if they is anyone in the country that gets what we just got back," Smith said. "If the World Cup ain't going to rattle you, a collegiate game is definitely not going to rattle you. So they just bring a different light and a different composure level to this team."
Adapting on the go as he looked to fill some of scoring void left by the Rapinoes, Smith moved Schmidt to forward upon her return, a position she hadn't played since youth soccer. She responded with two goals off the bench against Oregon in her first ever appearance in a Portland uniform and added two more against San Diego last week. Teaming her with sophomores Michelle Enyeart (6 goals) and Kendra Chandhoke (8 goals) in a rotation up top has given Portland remarkable depth considering what they lost. Despite playing without Megan and Rachael, who combined for 19 goals in 34 appearances last season, the Pilots are averaging 2.6 goals per game this season -- exactly the same as last season.
"It's pretty amazing," Megan said. "I mean, [Schmidt] looks a little lost up there at times, but she's just such an all-around talented soccer player that I think she's handling it really well. She got a couple of goals and she just understands the game well enough to kind of understand all the positions. It's just funny -- she's like a little kid out there and she seems really happy, just having fun."
Much of the credit for the team's perseverance goes to Smith, a man who is quick to deflect any such praise to his mentor. Woznuk recalled that Charles' reputation for playing fluid soccer -- as opposed to "boom ball" or bunkering -- and for treating players as individuals off the field as two of the biggest selling points when it came time for the San Diego native to pick a college. And in continuing both of those traditions, Smith has proved secure enough in his own abilities to thrive without micromanaging or massaging his own ego in a manner that might bring him more acclaim.
Portland soccer isn't about the coach; it's about the environment created by the coach for the players and the game. Charles knew it and so does Smith.
"As long as there is an alum of this era coaching here at this program, he'll always be a part of this program whether they know it or not," Smith said. "He built the foundation, and our success today is built on his foundation, so to say anything different than that would be a lie."
That's a legacy that even Rodin would have struggled to capture in bronze.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.