The Rutgers women’s soccer team opens the 2019 season on Thursday night at Yurcak Field against Central Connecticut State at 7 p.m. After a successful preseason that included exhibition wins over St. John’s (1-0) and Syracuse (2-0), the Scarlet Knights enter the new campaign looking to build off of last season. Rutgers completed its best ever Big Ten regular season, falling just short of the title in second place and finished with an 11-4-5 record overall. They qualified for the NCAA Tournament for an impressive seventh consecutive season, but lost a hard fought battle to ACC power Duke in the First Round. With many returning starters and boosted by a freshmen class looking to make a big impact this fall, the program is looking to take another step forward this season.
“Obviously we wanted to go further in the NCAA Tournament,” said associate head coach Meg Ryan, who played for Rutgers in the mid-2000’s and has been an assistant ever since. She added, “I give a lot of credit to the seniors and to the captains. They came back in the spring and were very focused on improving every single day, on and off the field. The culture has improved because of the leadership of the upperclassmen. It’s been a really focused preseason because they know where they want to be and have been focusing on the process. With every detail, they are showing the underclassmen how it is done.”
Junior midfielder Gabby Provenzano echoed that sentiment, stating “the biggest thing is learning from our successes and our mistakes. Coming off of that loss to end the season, we wanted more.” She continued, “I think the biggest thing for us in the offseason in the spring and coming back this summer was raising the standard one more level. Giving that extra 1%. Doing what we needed to do off the field in order to be prepared for when we came for when preseason practice began. We wanted to set that standard for the newcomers, telling them what is expected of them and explaining that we are all in this together to get this done. We wanted to make sure everyone was all in.”
Ryan said the attitude of the freshmen class has stood out, explaining “this freshmen class is eager to contribute and learn. We asked them to come in and be fit and they all came in that way. They ask questions and I give them a lot of credit. They understand they might not to be perfect right now, but they are trying to be perfect. We added a lot of depth that can come in and make an impact.”
After having a younger roster the past couple of seasons, Rutgers features a much more experienced group that includes 10 seniors and 6 juniors. In addition, there are now five players on the roster with extensive international experience, having played at various levels for their native countries. Ryan said it’s a big plus for the team, as “the players with international experience have been in those high pressured games.”
Most notably, senior defender Chantelle Swaby started three games as part of the first ever Jamaican team to play in the World Cup this past summer. Returning Second Team All-American Amirah Ali and last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, goalkeeper Meagan McClelland, have both been a part of the United States National system, playing for teams in various age groups, as well as having participated in multiple training camps. New to Rutgers are a pair of freshmen defenders in Abbie Roberts and Maddie Brant, both of whom have experience in the English national system. In regard to the two newcomers, Ryan said “They might be freshmen overall, but they really aren’t freshmen on the soccer field.
McClelland added, “I think everyone brings their own strengths and talents, but I think the few players who do have international experience have things they’ve learned that they can teach the rest of the team. It really rubs off on everyone.”
In addition to Roberts and Brant, Ryan and the players mentioned defender Allison Lynch and forward Regan Berg, who scored in the exhibition win over Syracuse, as freshmen who could step up right away. Even so, Provenzano emphasized the importance of the entire seven player class helping this season. She said, “We talk so much on this team about depth and that we expect everyone to contribute and help the team, whether they get 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or the whole game. I think every one of the newcomers will play an important role.”
Rutgers also returns several key veterans like senior forward Brittany LaPlant, who Ryan said, “I think a big piece of what we are getting back is her experience . She had some injuries last season but now she is back and 100 percent healthy.” LaPlant has scored nine goals in her Rutgers career so far.
Senior captain Taylor Aylmer anchors the midfield along with Provenzano and has started 39 of the program’s last 41 games.
On the back line, Rutgers is especially strong with seniors Amanda Visco and Swaby leading the central defense. Ryan, who oversees the traditionally stout defense, elaborated by saying “I do think that Amanda and Chantelle, the two center backs, they’ve been playing together since their freshman year and they continue to get stronger. They have a very good relationship that has evolved since their freshman year. Heading into their last year, along with two other seniors in the back, Tiernny Wiltshire and Meg Katona, there is a lot of experience and the players know the type of soccer we want to play.”
Throughout head coach Mike O’Neill’s tenure in charge at Rutgers, who enters his sixth season in charge and 20th with the program, being outstanding on the defensive end has been the signature identity for the Scarlet Knights. They led the entire country in goals against average two of the past four seasons and Ryan said the culture is a big reason why.
“They understand we are known as a team that doesn’t give up goals and they take that very seriously,” Ryan said. She continued, “the freshmen have bought into that. They know what they signed up for and make sure everyone defends. I give credit to the forwards and the midfielders, as they understand everyone attacks and everyone defends. We spend a lot of time on those details. We know we are a very organized team, but it comes down to those habits of doing those things 10 out of 10 times. They’ve done a wonderful job this preseason of making sure that we live up to that standard of not giving up goals.”
Last season saw the emergence of McClelland, who started every game but one as a true freshman, replacing Rutgers legend Casey Murphy in goal. She produced eight shutouts and yielded just 0.60 goals per game, earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors in addition to being named the conference’s freshman of the year. McClelland credited her teammates for her success, saying “The biggest thing I learned was getting the experience and confidence as a freshman after dealing with nerves and taking a couple of games to get into it. The support of my team and the confidence everyone gave me helped me step in and play my role.”
Ryan said that McClelland’s background and demeanor has been a key for the success of the defense, stating “Meagan has been in several US national camps, so having that experience has really helped her with her confidence. She is very composed back there and her calmness gives the players on the back line a lot of confidence in what she says and does from a technical perspective.”
As for replacing Murphy last season, McClelland was prepared. “I’ve trained with her since I was a kid. I’ve always looked up to her.” She continued, “when I train with her, I like to see how she takes things in. How calm and confident she is. I just try to follow in her footsteps and be like her. Especially being able to train with her at the highest level with the national team, I really focused on watching her and soaking it all in, to do my best to fill her shoes.”
For Rutgers to take a step forward this season and make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament, they need to improve with putting the ball in the back of the net. Despite the team allowing just a 0.70 goals against average last season, the Scarlet Knights only averaged 1.4 goals per game and produced just 3 goals in the final six games, including being shut out four times. Ryan said that improving offensively has been a big focus in the preseason.
“In the attacking third, just working on movements, getting those relationships down. Nneka (Moneme) is coming back with a lot more experience. She saw herself put the ball in the back of the net a few times along with Amirah (Ali).” Ryan continued, “Emily Harrigan, who redshirted last season, we are getting a more explosive player with her now too. We are working on playing off each other and that’s been the focus of the preseason in answering “how do we get the ball in the back of the net?” They’ve done a wonderful job of being focused and continue to get better every single day.”
Of course, the offense is led by junior captain Amirah Ali, who tied for the Big Ten lead with 10 goals last season. She is not satisfied though, saying “I want to try and produce more goals. I know 10 last season was a lot, but I can definitely score more.” A major positive for Rutgers is that Ali is embracing now being a leader for the program.
Ali said, “definitely coming into the season being an upperclassmen and now a captain, I really need to show that I’m putting in all that I can in. Hopefully, everyone else will follow my lead.” She continued, “I also have been more vocal, learning that directing my teammates with my voice and not just by my actions will be a big difference in my game. I don’t usually talk a lot during games, but I think my teammates will listen. It’s a big change from last season in I need to take on that role.”
Ryan said of Ali, “Amirah is a special player. She gets it technically, tactically, and has great athleticism. She has everything as far as being a tough forward to defend. Her movements, there is good rhyme and reason with everything that she is doing. She continues to impress the coaching staff every single day.” Ryan elaborated, “we talk about being 1% better and she strives for that. Whether its being a leader on the field, taking a defender on one versus one, she is someone who wants the ball in those high pressure situations. You can’t teach that. That’s part of what makes her special. We are looking forward to continue to watching her grow in the next couple of seasons. We definitely think the goals that she has for herself once she is done at Rutgers, she can reach them.”
As for the goals this team wants to achieve during the 2019 season, the players and coaches are focusing on the how more than the where. Ryan explained, “I think the biggest thing we are focusing on right now is the people and the process. We have to make sure we have the right people in place and focus on the everyday tasks. We definitely have the right people and the right players. On and off the field they have bought into what we are asking them to do. Now it’s just the details, the process, that’s going to separate every team that’s in the Big Ten conference. Every team that’s wants to go to the Final Four and win the national championship. We are really focusing the process this year to make sure we are doing everything in our preparation correctly, so that way we can reach our goals.”
Provenzano didn’t shy from setting the bar high though, stating “As far as team goals, winning the Big Ten Conference regular season, then the Big Ten Tournament and of course, the NCAA Tournament and Final Four. However, I think this year we are focusing more on on top of those goals, creating smaller goals to ultimately reach those bigger one’s.”
The preseason was key for this team to develop chemistry and a style of play that works for them. In regard to what they have learned, Ali stated, “We found a lot of strengths in our communication as a team, which we realized we play a lot better when we communicate well. It helps to find players, move in open space and keep the ball moving. I feel like when we do that, everything goes in our favor.”
Hopefully, the Rutgers women’s soccer team can make a lot of noise on the field this season and establish the program as one of the best in the country once again. If they do that, their message will be heard loud and clear this fall.
Note: Rutgers was picked to finish in second place in the Big Ten coaches preseason poll and Ali, McClelland, and Swaby were named to the preseason honors list.
The conference announced that Rutgers will host the Big Ten Women's Soccer Tournament Semifinals & Championship game at Yurcak Field on November 8th & 10th. Amazing opportunity for the program to secure the school's 1st ever B1G title on it's home turf (IF reg season isn't 1st).— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) August 20, 2019