There are several different approaches a program can take after a disappointing campaign from the previous year. If a team truly wants to know where they stand, particularly one with a revamped roster, the best indicator is playing the best of the best. That’s exactly what the Rutgers men’s soccer team is doing to begin its 2017 season.
This weekend, Rutgers goes on the road to play against two of the four College Cup (Final Four) teams from a year ago, both of whom are ranked in the top five of the United Soccer Coaches Poll. Those opponents are ACC schools, #2 Wake Forest, who lost by penalty kicks in the national title game in 2016, and #4 North Carolina. Both games will be streamed on ACC Network Extra.
One reason for optimism is that Rutgers defeated #24 UConn 1-0 in an exhibition earlier this month. Of course, with 14 newcomers on the roster and the team still looking to gel, consistency is still an issue. Rutgers lost their next exhibition to Monmouth 1-0, but it was valuable experience for a team with so many new players.
Head coach Dan Donigan felt the preseason was productive and had this to say in an interview with Scarletknights.com:
"I think they feel good about the performance against UConn. We love playing Monmouth because they are a tough, hard-nosed team and they don't give you a lot of time and space on the ball.
"There were a lot a great things we took away – keeping compact, keeping organized defensively from top to bottom from our forwards to our midfielders to our backline. We worked a lot on defensive cohesion with the back four. At the end of the day, we were very pleased with our two exhibitions."
After a disappointing 1-14-2 season in 2016, which followed a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament the year before, Donigan should be credited with scheduling so boldly. In fact, Rutgers doesn’t play their first home game at Yurcak Field until Friday, September 8th, when they open Big Ten play against #22 Michigan State. After this weekend in North Carolina, Rutgers will travel to the midwest to play Oral Roberts and UMKC.
Despite the challenging schedule to start the season, Rutgers is hoping to avoid such a difficult campaign a year ago. The program suffered several key injuries and production from key players who were lost to graduation from the 2015 team were hard to replace. Rutgers had a -27 goal differential and didn’t pick up their only win of the 2016 until the second to last game of the season. One interesting note is that Rutgers did rise to their competition at times, as they lost 2-1 in overtime to Big Ten Champ Maryland, tied Indiana, who were ranked #4 at the time, lost a high scoring 6-5 affair to #15 Florida Gulf Coast, and fell to #8 Michigan 2-1 in the season finale.
Entering this season, the leading scorer from the past three seasons and the 2015 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Jason Wright, transferred out of the program, landing at Clemson. Donigan told Brian Fonseca of the Daily Targum that it was a “mutual decision.”
As for key returning players, senior forward Dante Perez was second on the team last season with five goals. Rutgers had three players named to the Big Ten preseason honors list and all are seniors in forward Ethan Decker, midfielder Erik Sa, and defender Niel Guzman.
One experienced player new to Rutgers is transfer Ethan Vanacore-Decker, who previously played at both UConn and Louisville. The forward scored seven goals and registered 15 points as a sophomore at UConn in 2014. His veteran presence should be a welcomed addition this season.
Redshirt junior forward Miles Hackett, a key member of the 2015 team who suffered a season ending injury just three games into last year’s campaign, is healthy and ready to pick up where he left off.
Another big addition is transfer and two-time JUCO All-American goalkeeper Rafael Pereira. Despite poor results last season as a team, Pereira will have big shoes to fill in replacing David Greczek, who is the all-time saves leader in program history.
While expectations within the Big Ten remain low this season, Rutgers was picked to finish last, there is talent on this team. How quickly the ten players who were on the last NCAA squad can come together with the many newcomers on the roster, is what will likely determine how successful Rutgers will be this season. The journey begins Friday night against national runner-up Wake Forest.
For a full review of the 2017 schedule, click here