PHOENIX – In the span of just a few months, Mike Kraus, the new head coach of GCU’s men’s soccer team, has dealt with a variety of unique experiences. For starters, he had to figure out a way to build chemistry between 19 new players and the team’s returners. Then he witnessed the Antelopes’ stunning upset win over a highly-ranked team.
And then came another anomaly. In a non-conference home match against Santa Clara, Kraus dealt with an uncommon weather occurrence in Arizona: lightning.
Lightning in the area surrounding GCU Stadium on Sept. 9 produced a 90-minute show in the sky and delayed the game’s start time while keeping both teams in their locker rooms. As time passed – along with the storm – fans emerged from cover to witness the unfazed GCU warming up.
Coming off the program’s first win over a top-five opponent in history to start the season 3-4-1, nothing shocks the Antelopes, especially with the poised Kraus at the helm giving the team calm leadership through different situations.
In his first season as GCU’s coach, Kraus has relied on his rich experience as a longtime youth coach in the Phoenix area and as a former MLS player to weather the challenges of this season – the most difficult being the time crunch at the collegiate level. At Real Salt Lake Academy, where he spent 12 seasons, he had more time to develop players and longer seasons. At GCU, he has shorter seasons and less time overall.
Kraus said at Real Salt Lake-AZ, where he worked with 12-to-19-year-old players, long-term plans were more of the focus.
“You’re talking about what the development of a player is over 24, 48, 36 months,” Kraus said. “Three years and beyond are the plans that you’re looking to hopefully come into fruition.”
In college, though, time is a valuable commodity in short supply. GCU’s regular season takes just over two months to complete. Yet the goal for Kraus remains the same: preparing players for professional soccer.
His development of players involves improving their technical and tactical skills. He focuses on the finer points of the game to make his players better.
“(It’s) those little details of deceptiveness and the cleverness of how you disguise your intentions and what you’re trying to do, not only individually but collectively,” said Kraus, who was hired after GCU’s previous head coach, Leonard Griffin, took the head coaching job at California. “I think that’s one of the separators to get you to the top level.”
Comparing the academy to collegiate athletics, another adjustment for the GCU coach is the differences in physique and the secrets to building a successful team.
“At the youth level, I think ideas are rewarded,” Kraus said. “At this level, college and pro, it’s the execution that’s rewarded.”
Kraus believes in executing an aggressive style of play, particularly on defense, and wants his players to seek the ball in the attacking half rather than playing conservative defense. This style was a stark difference for senior forward Cameron Weller.
“Some coaches we’ve had in the past have been defense oriented where we start the game playing for a 0-0 tie,” Weller said.
Mistakes often happen anytime a new coach implements a different playing strategy. When things go wrong, Kraus shows patience with his players – another major change for Weller from previous seasons.
“That was a big thing, especially for me, because I’ve had coaches in the past where you’re scared to make a mistake because you might get pulled off the field,” Weller said. “That messes with your head and messes with your emotions.”
Kraus’ patience and detailed-oriented approach extend far beyond the soccer field. He wants his players to be unified in focusing on the finer points of everything they do. The details shine through in the culture he has established of having his players give back to the community and their fellow teammates.
“If you take shortcuts in one part of your life, you’re going to take quick shortcuts in the other (parts), and the team is going to suffer because of it,” Kraus said. “(Giving back is) at the heart of our values of our team that we’ve looked to instill and continue to develop. The soccer stuff can continue to get better and improve every single day, but if that foundation isn’t there for us, then we’ve got bigger problems.”
Senior midfielder Alex LaBarge said Kraus takes an active role in making sure the program’s culture is upheld.
“Every team talks about culture, but he’s definitely one to make sure that we’re all together,” LaBarge said.
The task of getting the team together and building chemistry was tougher than it may seem. GCU brought in 19 new players this season, including 13 freshmen and six transfers.
LaBarge said Kraus made that a priority immediately.
“We had a really good first impression with him as he wanted the team to be super close together,” LaBarge said. “We’re constantly doing team-bonding stuff. We’re always hanging out.”
Said Kraus: “If we’re going to be a team, you have to be able to enjoy each other’s company. You have to be able to like each other and to bond with each other off the field so that when it does come time to go to battle, you are ready to go to battle with somebody that you trust.”
Kraus’s coaching style and a great bond among the players have led to success against major conference opponents. GCU started its season with a 1-0 win over Virginia Tech. The Lopes found an even bigger win just 10 days later with a 3-2 upset win over then-No.4 UCLA.
“We can’t just look up and we can’t respect other teams,” LaBarge said. “They’re all the enemy, and it doesn’t matter how good they are or what rank they are. It’s the other team, and we don’t need to give them respect.”
The Lopes failed to produce the same success Saturday against No. 2 Washington, coming up short in a 4-1 loss.
GCU now turns its focus to nine games of WAC competition, where pressure will be on the Lopes to defend their regular-season conference championship. If the Lopes will succeed in that quest, Kraus said his team’s patience while playing aggressively will be key. The test starts Friday against Utah Tech.
“We don’t want to just be a team that’s sitting back and defending,” Kraus said. “We want to be dangerous in the attack and a lot of times that means pumping the brakes sometimes and being a little bit more patient and being a little bit safer with our passes.”