The Rutgers men’s soccer team kicks off the 2019 season with a three game roadstand beginning in Philadelphia against Temple on Thursday night. It’s a new era for the program, as head coach Jim McElderry has been on the job since last December preparing for his first season in charge on the banks. After a successful 16 year run at Fordham, McElderry is leading the Scarlet Knights into a new day as the program looks to climb back up the Big Ten standings this fall. The program won just nine times overall the previous three seasons.
His first recruiting class includes 13 prospects that is mixed with international players, local high school and club players, as well as a couple of transfers.
With the season about to begin, I was able to speak with McElderry about how the first few weeks of practice have gone. “The preseason has gone well. About half of our players are new and all but one are new to college soccer, so getting them acclimated to it.” He added, “the returning players have really taken some things on that we’ve asked them to do over the summer, in terms of taking care of themselves and fitness. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know our group and them getting to know each other and working on their games.”
Preparation for his 17th campaign as a head soccer coach has been unlike any other, as McElderry spent every season before now leading Fordham to respectability and relevancy. “The biggest difference in the preseason with a team you’ve had for many years is having players who have been with you for years, which makes them an extension of you and the coaching staff. Helping with how you want things done,” McElderry explained. He continued, “here, even the returning players are still learning how we want things done. The spring season is a great time for learning and evaluating and improving your game, but it’s certainly a lot different in the fall season in terms of the commitment levels, the expectations and level of competition. There is still a lot for us to implement into our group.”
For any new coach it’s crucial to get the returning players of the previous staff to buy into the new culture and system installed. McElderry feels good about how that process has gone so far.
“I think we have some good leaders on our team. Guys like Jake Longo and Vince Borden who are both committed and honest, hard working players”, said McElderry. Continuing, “however, it’s still their first preseason with me. It’s different than where I was for 16 years, but at the same time it is exciting that we are bringing people through our process for the first time for our first season. It’s been fun going through each and every session trying to see how we can get them together and also see what their potential is for this season.”
McElderry has stressed the high commitment level as part of the standard that is part of the culture he is building at Rutgers. “Fitness is something we’ve pushed with the returning players, to increase their level of commitment towards being a top level Division I college soccer player in the Big Ten”, he said. McElderry further explained, “it’s a very high standard as you know, so we’ve pushed this group to really dedicate themselves over the summer. Some guys still have a ways to go to meet the potential that we think they have.”
While any coaching change takes time to adjust to, McElderry feels he has found players who have risen to the challenge of raising the standard this offseason. “Guys have really jumped in with two feet and have said that this was something they wanted to always do, to push harder and see what their true potential is. Those are the guys that we really feel we can rely on to help the younger players acclimate to what we are trying to do.”
McElderry continued, “it is different no matter what their background is. Regardless of where you are from, that first preseason at a Division I school is challenging. Because we have so many new players and preseason is so short, we still have much more to do and a long way to go to reach our full potential.”
Coming off a 4-13-1 campaign last season and half the roster being new, it is a fine line between focusing on the big picture development versus what suits the current team best in trying to be successful. McElderry spoke about the preferred style of play he envisions for Rutgers long term, but also on the importance of adapting to the team’s personnel as well.
“I think some of the stuff we are working on this preaseason is part of our long term plan”, he stated. On what style he prefers, McElderry elaborated, “We want to be a team that is technically good enough to play out of the back and have the ball more than the other team. Hopefully, create attacking chances through our ability to deal with the ball and work as a group together.”
On the importance of adaptability, McElderry explained, “We also have to look at the players we have to work with in terms of injury and if you lose a player here and there, you have to make adjustments to give your team the best chance to be successful. We are constantly working on training that is part of our long term plan, but we also know that in the short term, whether its injury or someone is having a tough time settling in playing a new position, we have to adjust those tactics each and every week as play different opponents.”
The dual focus on the short and long term is not an easy thing to balance, but McElderry’s experience building an afterthought program at Fordham into a nationally respected team that went to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2017 should give confidence in that he knows exactly what he is doing. “We are constantly working towards what we want to be now, but also what we want to be in the future. We want to play an attractive style and want people to come out and watch our team play.” McElderry continued, “we also want to be ultra competitive. We keep pushing with this group. We want to play a nice brand, but you also have to be competitive at all moments in every match in order to have a chance to win against Division I quality opponents.”
Rutgers held two preaseason scrimmages against UCONN and Monmouth. McElderry said of the exhibitions, “the two scrimmages were a little different. The first one we were only in camp about four days or so. Every player we had on the roster healthy and available played in the game, as UConn did the same. After 90 minutes, we were winning the game 2-1, so that was a really good direction. We played an extra ten minutes and conceded a goal during that time, so that was also a good learning time for us.”
Even if it was just a scrimmage, the fact that Rutgers held it’s own against a program that won 12 games last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament is encouraging.
McElderry said of the second scrimmage, “in our more recent exhibition against Monmouth, there was a little more of an intensity of a real game as we get closer to the start of the season. Playing some guys in some spots that they haven’t played before and seeing if they are an option for us going forward. I’ve been really happy with our guys in terms of our focus, commitment and competitiveness during the preseason matches.”
So what did Rutgers learn in the preseason that they need to improve on to result in a successful 2019 campaign?
“We need to get better in the final third in terms of taking advantage of opportunities we create”, said McElderry. He continued, “there is also details on attacking set pieces and some that we need to continue to work on to give ourselves the opportunity to take advantage of set pieces. Also in the college game, all the teams are really good at attacking set pieces, so you have to be really sharp defensively. We’ll continue to work on those aspects.”
In regard to players to watch for this season, one position battle that McElderry said is still ongoing is between the three goalkeepers, UAB transfer James Teal, Israeli freshman Oren Asher, and Connecticut freshman Cameron Farrar, who has some US National camp experience.
McElderry on the competition for starting in net, “In goal, we are still have a battle going on. We have three good guys there who are all competing for that starting role. They all played in the preseason games and we are still deciding on them, which is a good problem to have.”
McElderry inherited two former All-Freshman Big Ten selections in junior Vince Borden and sophomore Thomas DeVizio. They duo also received preseason Big Ten honors from the league this week, as well as junior Kyle Galloway who was a reserve off the bench last season.
On Borden, coach said “he is a returning player who has come back and is trying to lead by example. Someone who has played a big role here the past couple of years and we are trying to push his game to the next level. He’s been really good in terms of his commitment level, which we always knew he would be. But he has really tried to get some of those younger players to settle in and mentor them. That’s been a real good thing and growth in his game.”
On DeVizio, “the Scotch Plains native has been a little unlucky with injuries over the past year or so, but is really starting to get healthy now. He is getting sharp and excited about playing, which is really fun to see.”
Regarding the newcomers, McElderry seems pleased with the progress made so far, but understands it’s a process in them turning into consistent producers their first seasons. “We have a bunch of incoming players who have stepped up or come in and done a really nice job of adjusting to the college game. The games in the coming weeks will really tell us where we are. I’m happy with the group. I think we have some players who can compete with anyone in the country. And also have guys who not only can do things for us this year, but I’m excited about them as they grow in the coming years”
On who has stood out the most among the new players, McElderry said “Jorgen Lie is originally from Norway, has come in and settled in quite quickly. We are really happy to have him.” Lie is a defensive midfielder who played at the highest levels of youth soccer in Norway.
The Scarlet Knights were picked to finish in last place out of nine teams in the Big Ten, but also have a difficult non-conference schedule with the fact that six of those nine contests are on the road. In asking McElderry if there was a particular reason why they would be on the road so much this fall, his explanation was “some of the games on the road this year were set up prior to me coming here and fulfilling some contractual agreements. They weren’t things I could change so I didn’t worry about those.”
On whether McElderry intends to schedule a similar slate in the futures, he clarified, “we’d much rather be playing more games at home. I think you’ll see starting in 2020 we will have a lot more home games. We have a beautiful place to play, a beautiful surface, and don’t think we will have trouble with teams wanting to come play at Yurcak Field. It’s a great place to be.”
Rather than make excuses with the challenging schedule, McElderry is embracing the opportunity it provides for his first team on the banks. “We’ll try and use the road games this season to try and grow our team with bonding and being a resilient group as well. It’s not easy starting with games on the road. We will use it to become a tough and hardened group.”
On the team’s approach to the schedule overall, McElderry stayed, “most coaches will tell you they are really just trying to prepare for those first few games ahead and compete as hard as you can. Win or lose move on to the next one. I think that is the best philosophy especially for a young group like mine.”
On the initial three game road trip to begin the season, McElderry said, “Temple, Drexel, and Elon are all different types of teams and environments, so we will use that to test our guys. Hopefully, it serves us well when we get into the thick of our conference schedule.
On his new league, McElderry said “I think the Big Ten is probably the best conference in the country, so we are going to need to be really tested and figure out what our best tactics and players are at that point of the season.”
For Rutgers to make real progress and regain national relevancy, climbing up the Big Ten standings is a must. They’ve gone just 2-20-2 the past three seasons in conference play. McElderry is obviously focused on the challenge that playing in the Big Ten presents. “You are always still trying to figure out how you can be competitive in your conference. You are always trying to figure out how you can get into the top half of the table and how you can be successful”, he said. He continued, “I think we are well aware of how talented the teams are in the Big Ten and how well coached they are. It’s one of the exciting things for us as a staff to test ourselves against some of the best coaches in the country, year in and year out. It was an attraction to come to Rutgers and to compete against those programs. It’s something we embrace, but are well aware that it’s going to be challenging.”
Rebuilding the Rutgers men’s soccer program in such a competitive conference will not be easy. To McElderry’s credit, he has embraced the challenge. His experience rebuilding Fordham into a consistent winner has helped prepare him for this opportunity.
“In the short term, we are trying to get our team to play as well as they possibly can. To compete in each and every game we are facing in the non-conference and then take every conference game one at a time as well.”
Regarding the Big Ten schedule, Rutgers will also play on the road against the top three teams picked by the coaches in the preseason, Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan. McElderry explained the challenge has helped simplify the goals for this season. “I’m excited to get on the road. I’ve played a lot of top teams over the years from different conferences, but we have some nice venues to go to. I’m sure our players will be excited to get there and really test ourselves. If you have a group of players that are excited about playing at Indiana, at Michigan or at Maryland, you have the mentality right. Then we just need to keep improving as a group and compete with those teams.”
It’s clear McElderry has a specific plan on how to turn Rutgers back into a winner, but it is going to take time. The foundation and culture has begun its development this offseason. Now the program is set to begin a new era on the pitch this fall and hopefully they can exceed expectations in McElderry’s first season.