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Ducks Open Abel Era Sunday

Feb 4, 2021

Soccer Game Notes: Week 1

Fifteen months since the Oregon soccer team last took the field, and more than 13 months since Graeme Abel was hired as head coach, the Ducks will finally return to action Sunday, when they host Gonzaga.

The Ducks haven't played since Nov. 7, 2019, a 1-0 loss to Oregon State that wrapped up a 5-9-5 campaign. In late December of that year, Abel was hired to infuse Oregon's program with the World Cup-winning spirit that fueled the U.S. National Teams he worked with as an assistant.

But then, last March, the COVID-19 pandemic brought college athletics to a halt. The revenue-producing NCAA men's basketball tournament was canceled. The football season seemed in jeopardy as well. And Abel, at his lowest moments, couldn't help but wonder what that meant for the program he had taken over.

"I actually said to my wife at one point," Abel recalled recently, "I might never coach a game at Oregon."

Thanks to the leadership and support of UO athletics administration, however, Abel's program and the rest of the department were provided the resources to soldier on amid the pandemic. It certainly wasn't a normal offseason — the Ducks only last month held their first full-contact, 11-on-11 practice since Abel took over — but on Sunday the Oregon women finally will return to action under their new head coach.

"I'm so curious to see where we're at," Abel said. "It gives us a benchmark to then go, OK, let's get back to the practice field and let's make them better."

Incredibly, this hasn't been Abel's first experience coaching amid the fear of a pandemic outbreak. He was an assistant with the U.S. Women's National Team in 2016, when the Zika virus threatened the Summer Olympics in Rio.

The Games went on, but preparation was impacted by the distraction of the potential pandemic. Abel said that experience helped him appreciate the leadership from UO director of athletics Rob Mullens and his staff over the past year.

"The information that trickled down from the top was far better than what we get (in 2016)," Abel said.

Information is one thing. Time on the practice field is another. And there was little that could be done to avoid a disruption in that area for Abel's program in 2020.

Injuries and international obligations kept the Ducks from being able to conduct a full 11-on-11 practice last spring. Then the pandemic hit. By the time Abel gathered his team for practices over the summer, they were under vastly unusual circumstances.

"We did a really good job making it as real as possible," Abel said. "But when you've got to have a 10-foot buffer between you and the other players, it's not real."

Abel and his staff were forced to think outside the box. They devised new drills, some of which they'll continue to incorporate once the pandemic is fully behind them.

All the while, they worked to establish team culture, even if much of that was done via virtual meetings. And they fought to keep the student-athletes' spirits up.

"The message was, we will play again at some point," Abel said. "And when we do, we've got to be in the best possible place to do that."

The Ducks have had to be methodical in their build-up to the season, because of the stop-start nature of the pandemic-interrupted offseason. Abel said the athletic department's sports science staff played a significant role in that build-up.

The presence of sports science experts was among the resources at Oregon that attracted Abel to the job, he said. And they have had a profound impact on his program, before it ever took the field under the new coach.

"We had to be careful that there's no risk of injury," Abel said. "You can't go from zero to 100. We had to build them up slowly. That took several weeks to do correctly, but it's something we were adamant about."

It was just in the last two weeks, on Saturday, Jan. 23, that Oregon finally held a normal, 11-on-11 scrimmage with Abel as head coach. Just as Sunday's opener against Gonzaga will be, that was a benchmark from which to learn strengths and weaknesses, and move forward in practices.

When the team broke down video of the scrimmage together, Abel gave them an option: Did they want to hear Abel's feedback as he'd offer it to a normal team of college players? Or did they want him to break it down like he did during his stint with the U.S. Women's National Team, which won two World Cups in that time?

"They said, give it to us," Abel recalled with pride. "They wanted tough coaching. They wanted it real."

That was a positive indication about the culture Abel and his staff fostered during the chaos of 2020. Come Sunday, the Ducks will finally take the field together under their new coach, and provide the first hints of what that culture will yield in the coming years.

"Are we where we want to be? No," Abel said. "But we're on the way to it."