Under new head coach Jim McElderry last season, the Rutgers men’s soccer team produced the best start for the program since 1986 and achieved a national ranking for the first time in four years. While Big Ten play resulted in a far more difficult second half of the season, resulting in just one conference win, including four one goal defeats, the program took a solid step forward overall. After a combined record of 9-40-4 the previous three seasons, including just two wins in Big Ten play, McElderry led Rutgers to a 7-8-3 overall record and 1-6-1 mark in conference play. A proven program builder after making Fordham a consistent winner that included a 2017 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance, McElderry was pleased with his inaugural campaign on the banks last season.
“We started off pretty well”, said McElderry. “Even in the conference with a tie out at Michigan, it capped a great first half of the season for us. I think when you get into conference play with back to back games, where you get found out is on the depth side. I think we knew going into the season we didn’t have the depth at certain positions. When you suffer a few injuries, as every team does, as it’s the nature of athletics, I think it was harder for us to maintain the same style and shape of play we wanted.”
McElderry hopes the positives of a 6-0-2 start to last season helps his returning players moving forward. He stated, “the first half of the season was a great showing and a confidence builder for the players on the team. They realized we could compete at a national level. We just needed a little more depth. The hope is as injuries happen in the future, we can continue to play the way we want with the same mentality. That’s a big part of recruiting. It’s not only trying to get guys who can come in and be superstars. That’s important, but it’s also about getting our overall squad stronger, so that regardless of how the games and injuries go, we will be able to compete at the next level. I think that’s what some of the top Big Ten teams have. They have more depth and we needed to address it, which we are doing.”
Entering his second year at Rutgers, McElderry is looking to build off of the strong foundation that was laid last season. Although the team hasn’t been together for several weeks now due to the global pandemic COVID-19, they had some valuable time together earlier this semester with a group that includes about two thirds of the roster from last season. McElderry explained, “The beginning of the spring semester, we had a good amount of time with the guys. We did get a good six or seven weeks of training. We didn’t play any games, as our first one wasn’t scheduled until March 28, so we didn’t play any outside competition this spring. It was good to be around the guys, having 20 players with us. It was fun to be around them, as well as continuing the learning and development.”
McElderry spoke highly of one change to the offseason workouts this spring, which was a new addition to the program’s staff. “We are really lucky at Rutgers where we hired a new strength and conditioning coach Ruben Cisneros, who will be working just with men’s and women’s soccer. He is a soccer guy and has been a real positive addition to both program’s staff’s.”
In regard to how the coaching staff is approaching training this offseason with the team unable to be together, McElderry explained the focus for the players has been more about staying active and healthy over anything else. “There are a lot of different NCAA rules of what we can require our guys to do. Our approach has been having our strength coach put together programs for our players. We’ve given those to them and said we don’t know exactly the climate at your home regarding what facilities you have. Here are ideas and different workouts you can do.”
As far as how much is required, McElderry made it clear that nothing is mandated during this time. “We are just trying to educate our guys on how to stay healthy and mentally fit as well. We’ve suggested to them that their bodies are used to getting a sweat going pretty much every single day. You need to keep doing that just for your own mental health, in addition to their physical health. We are all stuck at home so it’s really important for these young people to find time to get fitness in. It might not be soccer specific or as hard as they would be training normally, but it’s up to them.”
McElderry has taken a half glass full approach with how the experience this offseason can help his players in the future, stating “hopefully they take advantage of different opportunities like spending more time at home with our families or allowing our players to take a step back and appreciate some of the things that they have in their lives. Whether it’s family or being lucky enough to go to a school like Rutgers. Appreciate playing a sport.”
One aspect of this time that McElderry and his staff have focused on is the overall wellbeing of the players and their families. “It’s an unprecedented time for all of us. No matter how old you are, it’s not really anything we have seen in our lifetime for the most part, from the youngest to the oldest. We are all trying to learn to deal with and adapt. However, it’s also a scary time. My approach to it has to not put any pressure on the players. Let them be home and spend time with family. Deal with anyone who is sick or in compromised situations. We are staying in contact with them constantly and then eventually as this thing runs it’s course, we’ll see where we are as we look toward the 2020 season.”
In regard to the team expected to take the field this fall, almost every major contributor from last season’s team returns. Captain Jake Longo graduated and Norwegian freshman Jorgen Wisth Lie is not returning to the United States after scoring three goals last season, all of which came off of penalty kicks.
Aside from those two, Rutgers is returning a tremendous amount of experience and offensive production from last season. The top two scorers return in Pablo Avila (6 goals, 2 assists) and Jackson Temple (5 goals). Both have multiples years of eligibility remaining and welcome a seasoned scorer in St. Joseph’s transfer Ritchie Barry. The Welshman who starred at Sparta high school in New Jersey, earning Second Team All-State honors in 2016, comes to Rutgers looking to finish his already solid collegiate career on a high note.
Barry was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team in 2017 and scored 9 goals while distributing 5 assists as a sophomore. He started the first ten games of last season as a junior, but did not appear the rest of the way. McElderry explained, stating “I think it was a coaches decision where they were not happy with the way he was pushing the group. Barry has really high expectations and their season did not go well. About halfway through the season, he made it clear to them he wanted to spend his last year at another school. When that happens, coaches make decisions. We know their coaching staff very well. At the end of the season when he reached out to us, we reached out to them. They liked him, he is a good kid. He really wanted to experience playing in a top conference his last year, so they made the decision that if you aren’t going to be around next year, we will go with the guys we have. No hard feelings there.”
McElderry is excited about what Barry brings to the program, stating “he is trying to reach the ambition that he has. He had a great sophomore year when they were very good. I was very familiar with him being in the same conference at my previous job (Fordham), so I know Ritchie well. Super competitive, more than maybe anyone I’ve ever been around. He is very motivated to play well for us this year but also play at the next level too.”
Ritchie joined the program in the spring, so he did have some time with his new team. “He was around and training with our team. That was very helpful in terms of his ability to acclimate to our group”, said McElderry. “He is a good player and real kind of soccer junkie. It was nice to have him around and let people know what he is all about.
Defensively, Rutgers has several key returning players, including Vince Borden, Thomas DeVizio, and Hugo Le Guennec, who will be a senior, junior and sophomore respectively next season. All three previously earned All-Big Ten Freshman honors and have been key contributors in their Rutgers careers. Their play was important in helping the defense surrender 21 less goals last year from the previous season. Of course, the addition of goalkeeper Oren Asher, who started all 18 games as a freshman and produced a 1.40 goals allowed per game average, was key as well. The coaching staff made a significant impact as well and having that core returning should lead to even more progress.
In regard to improving the team for this coming season, McElderry stated, “we are always trying to get more athletic, bigger and stronger. I personally want guys who can first deal with the ball technically, but we have to address some of our needs on our team. I think we’d be a little bit naive if we didn’t address some of the areas we thought we were a little weaker in this past season.”
McElderry and his staff added four freshman to the roster that could make an impact this fall as well. One focus on the recruiting trail, aside from adding talent and depth, was to get better in the air. Rutgers added four field players that stand 6’0” or taller, that includes Barry, which is the same amount they had on the roster last season, not including goalkeepers. McElderry stated, “It’s something we want to address. It’s part of the game. Defending and attacking set pieces is a big part of soccer at any level. I think it was an area we were not great in last year. I think we were just a hair undersized. I felt we wanted some guys not just in terms of height, but guys we felt were good in the air. That’s one of the components to the game of the newcomers.”
McElderry spoke in detail on how he feels the new additions will make the program better moving forward. “I think people will see Fredrick Holme is a good center back with good size (6’2”), but also excellent in the air. I think you’ll find Colin Beasley is 6’2”, but is also really talented in the air. The forward scored a bunch of goals at the youth level.” He continued, “Cole Sotack coming from the Philadelphia Union is someone who is incredibly consistent. Pretty good in all areas. I know he is a guy who will find his way on the field for us. Darin Henry is someone who can play several positions, which will be a key for him. He might not be in our starting lineup early on, but he is a guy who can fill-in for someone injured or come off the bench and make a difference at a bunch of positions. We think he’ll be a good asset for us in terms of his mentality and personality. Very good athlete as well.”
While Beasley and Sotack are local players, Holme is from Norway and Henry is coming north from Florida. McElderry had a geographically diverse class last year as well, adding several local and international players.
Regarding his recruiting philosophy, McElderry explained “I think you have to be everywhere in order to compete on the national level. I think you can see from our roster and our recruiting class, we always want to have good guys from New Jersey. We always want to recruit this state and there are a lot of good players here. We want the really good players locally to know that Rutgers is a really good option for them at the next level. I think we’ve addressed that. Not just the Jersey guys, but you have players in the Philly area. We’ve had some good success with the Union and some areas that are just out of state. We are always going to try and recruit this local area because I think as we get better you’ll find more local players will realize what a great opportunity to stay home and play for Rutgers at the highest level on the biggest stage.”
That being said, McElderry emphasized why he continues to search for talent outside of the tri-state area as well. “I like having players from outside the region or country. It brings a good diversity to the team. It also brings an appreciation of different backgrounds and cultures. Ultimately, you look around the national landscape, most teams have international players on their rosters. It’s part of the dynamic in recruiting college soccer.”
As for the leadership for this team, McElderry feels good about who he has leading the roster. “Last year we had a lot of guys earn a lot of minutes. Having those guys come back is important. Vince Borden is a rising senior who has played a lot of minutes for the program over the last three years. Also someone that was new to our program last year, Pablo Avila, had a great season production wise is a very mature guy and grounded. He is one of the most talented guys on the team and this spring really stepped up to a leadership role. I’m excited for him to take the next step. He’s an excellent player but more so to help push this group with leadership and setting a tone and example for all of younger players.”
Regarding scheduling, McElderry told me before last season that the previous regime had made those decisions for his first campaign, which led to six of the nine non-conference games being played on the road. That meant Rutgers only played seven home contests for the entire season.
McElderry’s scheduling philosophy is clear heading into his second season. “Hopefully fingers crossed, everything comes off as planned in the fall. We have so many questions right now with the virus and where we are all going to be. We have to wait and see but, as of now we have 11 home games scheduled for this season, which is almost a flip from last season. That’s a really important aspect of what we want to do scheduling wise.”
As for opponents, McElderry made adding a longtime rival a priority, as well including a former conference foe from the program’s Big East days back on the schedule. “Out of conference, we are playing away at Princeton. We have Syracuse coming to play at our place.”
Rutgers and Princeton had only played twice in the previous five seasons. The two schools have played on the pitch for decades, so seeing this series renewed long term is something longtime fans for both programs will be very happy about. McElderry stated, “I really think we should play Princeton every year. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I have a good relationship with (head coach) Jimmy Barlow at Princeton. We are going try and keep that going as long as we possibly can. It just makes sense as they are a very good team and are right down the road. I think it’s a great rivalry that we can start up again.”
As for playing the Orange, McElderry expounded on his non-conference scheduling philosophy, stating “we’ll also always try to get some other teams like a Syracuse from the ACC to come to campus and play us. We are trying to increase the competitiveness of our non-conference schedule, but also get more home games. It was so difficult for us having so many road games last season. It was too much. We want to keep it where we have 10-11 homes games each season. We have a beautiful Big Ten facility. Teams want to come play here and it’s an attractive place to play. We want to play a really tough non-conference schedule. Once you jump into the Big Ten schedule, you are playing some top teams, so you need to do that to prepare yourself.”
As for expectations for McElderry’s second season, he kept it simple, stating “I think it’s always going to be about reaching our potential. We are going to be a more talented and deeper group, so the expectations as a team are to improve. We had a great out of conference record last year. Our schedule will be a bit tougher this season, so that’ll be good to see where we are against a more challenging schedule.”
Of course, improving in conference play is a major priority as well. “In the Big Ten, we have higher expectations and feel we can compete in the conference.” McElderry continued, “we have a lot of work to do to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten, but we feel we can be. We want to do as well as we possibly can in the Big Ten.”
As for the long term outlook for the program, which was one of the best nationally decades ago under former head coach Bob Reasso, McElderry explained why he feels confident about what he and his staff are building at Rutgers. “We’ve have a lot of interest from recruits and their understanding of where Rutgers is going as an athletic department. There are a lot of great things coming like the Rodkin Center opening up. I think that’s going to be an asset for us with recruiting and the everyday life of our student athletes. I’m really excited for them.”
As for setting lofty goals, McElderry referenced another coach that fans should be familiar with. “I think we all take our lead from coach Schiano a little bit. Why shouldn’t Rutgers be one of the top teams in the Big Ten in all of the sports that we are competing? That’s our goal too!”
Regarding the fall ahead, McElderry said, “We are excited about next season. Excited about our players returning and the new one’s. Our immediate focus though is just hoping everyone stays safe and healthy out there, while looking forward to whenever we do get ourselves back to whatever the new normal is going to be. For now, we are looking forward to the 2020 season, but more concerned about our players and their families making sure theirs safe and healthy, getting through this as a community.”
McElderry’s experience building a program and a roster that can excel at the collegiate level, as well as his focus on what’s best for his players long term, makes him right choice to restore long term success for Rutgers men’s soccer. In uncertain times for the world, our nation, and the immediate future of sports in the coming months, the program has the right coach to lead them forward.