When Coach John Trask
took UIC to St. Louis for the Flames' 2006 opening game, he reminded them of the surroundings.
"Take a look at this
stadium," he told
his players of Hermann Stadium, site of the 2006 Men's College Cup. "You might be here in the final four."
Indeed, the Flames have emerged as the surprise contenders to reach the final
After five weeks, the Flames are ranked No. 9 in the Soccer America Men's Top 25
with a 7-0-2 record. They
opened with a 1-0 win at 10-time national champion Saint Louis and also beat ranked UC Santa Barbara, 2-1, on the first of their current six-game road swing. They also tied Cal Poly, 1-1, on their
California trip, won two games in Miami (1-0 over FIU and 5-0 over Florida Atlantic) and opened Horizon League play with a 3-0 win at Detroit.
In less than two years, Trask has built UIC
-- the University of Illinois Chicago -- into a national power. The former Indiana assistant was beginning his sixth year as an MLS assistant coach when UIC hired him in January 2005. He had
worked for the Miami Fusion and D.C. United under Ray Hudson
and was also an assistant at FC Dallas
has gotten balanced scoring. Five players have scored all 18 goals, but none has more than four: Tonci Skroce
and Eric Cervantes
have four and Brodey Simkins
and Pavle Dundjer
They reflect the odd blend of players UIC -- not to be confused with the main University of Illinois campus in Champaign -- attracts. Zambrano is a product of the
CLASA, Chicago's strong Latin league. Cervantes played at suburban Hoffman Estates High School, which produced the famous Snow
, and for Sockers FC, one of the country's top youth clubs. Simkins, whose three goals are more than he scored in his first three years at UIC, hails from
Skroce came to Chicago from Zadar, Croatia, to study at Kendall College, a culinary arts and hospitality management school, and transferred to UIC, where he's majoring in
marketing. Former Croatia national team star Aljosa Asanovic
spotted Skroce while visiting the Chicago area, and recommended Skroce for Croatia's U-21 team.
After the 2004 Horizon League Tournament, Skroce headed back home and made his international debut with the U-21s against Slovenia.
Dundjer, a midfielder, is a product of the youth
program at the famous Belgrade club Red Star. The Serbian was the 2004 Horizon Newcomer of the Year and an all-league pick his first two seasons at UIC.
Several newcomers have made big
contributions. Freshman Baggio Husidic
, another Sockers product, has been outstanding as a holding midfielder. Three other first-year players are starting
-- Serbian goalie Jovan Bubonja
, who redshirted last year with a knee injury, Husidic's older brother, Alen
, a JC
transfer, and Mike Giffin
, who played last year for NCAA Division I runner-up New Mexico.