Begovic: UIC Coach, Close Friend

Men’s soccer coach Sasha Begovic and his University of Illinois-Chicago Flames will be introduced to NCAA Tournament play against coach Bob Warming’s Saint Louis University Billikens at Hermann Stadium on Sunday at noon.

Begovic will not, however, need to be introduced to Warming.

“We are very very close friends” said Begovic, who is in his ninth year of coaching. “He’s one of the nicest friends I’ve met on the field. I don’t have a brother, but he’s my brother.”

Begovic, a native of Yugoslavia, and Warming became friends more than eight years ago, when Begovic assisted Warming at some soccer camps at Creighton, Warming’s previous coaching post. Both have continued the camps since then.

But for at least 90 minutes this Sunday, the two will be foes.

“After the game, we’ll be brothers,” Begovic said.

Begovic’s Flames, who are 17-3-0 on the season, will take on the role of David this weekend, as they try to knock off the No. 3 seeded Billikens in the NCAA Tournament.

It is the UIC program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Flames didn’t play the most difficult schedule in the country, since they played in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. But they have won 12 games in a row, and they have beat up on two of the Bills’ opponents-Butler, 5-1 and DePaul, 4-0.

“We are good because everyone plays as a team, works as a team,” Begovic said. “We don’t do much individual stuff. Individually we are not as good.

“We try to play nice and attractive soccer.”

Begovic noted that UIC strings together passes and plays an attacking style of soccer.

“We play our style. We didn’t change too much (over the season),” Begovic said. “We aren’t a panicky team. We know we can come back.

“We don’t sit back and play defense. We don’t sit back and wait for the other team to make mistakes.”

Offensively, the Flames force the play on their opponents. They are fifth in the nation in offense, averaging 2.95 goals per game. And in every game that UIC has won, they have outshot their opponents by large margins. The Flames like to get off to fast starts, too, as they have outscored their foes 31-8 in the first half.

Junior Eric Lukin leads the UIC offense. He is second in the country in scoring, posting 20 goals and 14 assists, for an average of 2.70 points per game.

“We don’t have the tough, tough competition like some teams,” Begovic said. “But to score that many points in a season is a big accomplishment.”

In the midfield, John Collins and Ryan Lindgren run the show. Collins has tallied six goals and seven assists on the season for 19 points and Lindgren has scored four goals while tacking on six assists for 14 points.

“They’re everything to me,” Begovic said. “They’re my assistant coaches on the field and off.”

Defensively, UIC doesn’t have stellar players, but they hold their own.

“The goalkeeper and defense is a whole unit,” Begovic said. “Everyone works real hard.”

Freshman Joe Morelli anchors the defense at the sweeper position. Goalie Chris Jamal guards the nets for the Flames. He has a 0.73 goals-against average this season, which ranks him in the top 20 nationally.

Begovic thinks the Flames can hang with SLU.

“It’s going to be hard to matchup with Saint Louis,” Begovic noted. “We aren’t going to sit back and wait for Saint Louis to run up and down. We are going to give them a good game.”

But SLU’s speed and experience still gives Begovic some scary thoughts.

“That is my concern, the speed up top,” Begovic said. “Experience, quality soccer-wise, that is the biggest problem we’ll have.”