The Rutgers men’s soccer team (3-2) has taken a notable step forward this season and goalkeeper Oren Asher is a big reason why. He was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for a second time this season after two recent strong performances in the net for the Scarlet Knights.
In the 2-0 win over Maryland last on March 3, Asher made two diving stops in the second half with Rutgers playing with only ten men. It was the program’s first ever win over the Terps since joining the Big Ten and was also Asher’s conference leading third shutout of the season.
Asher was even more impressive in defeat this past Sunday, as Rutgers suffered a hard fought 1-0 overtime loss to no. 9 Michigan (3-0) at Yurcak Field. The Scarlet Knights was called for its third red card of the season in the 60th minute and played shorthanded the rest of the way. Michigan outshot RU 16-1 in the second half and overtime, but Asher made eight saves from the 54th minute through overtime before Bryce Blevins scored the game winning goal for the Wolverines four minutes into the extra session.
It was a tough loss to take based on what a positive result would have meant with RU, who were knocking on the door to take over first place in the Big Ten standings. However, second year head coach Jim McElderry’s team is making major strides in a short period of time and all while managing life during a global pandemic.
The Rutgers defense is greatly improved and has been a big factor as well, led by the stellar play of Hugo Le Guennec, who made a diving header to make a save in the second half against Michigan.
One issue that the Scarlet Knights need to resolve is putting themselves in a difficult position by playing a man down, something they’ve done now for 109 total minutes already. Playing five games over 17 days is a difficult task on its own, but fatigue is a bigger concern with being shorthanded so often. The issue is partly due to the toughness this team plays with and they are not backing down to any opponent. However, it’s asking a lot to compete that way on a consistent basis in a league as challenging as the Big Ten.
Even so, Asher continues to be a rock in net for Rutgers. The sophomore ranks second in the Big Ten with an .880 save percentage.
McElderry spoke about Asher’s development in his latest podcast episode this week, saying “He’s grown as a young man in this past year and really stepped into a leadership role. He is lot more confident, more vocal and a calming voice on our team. He is super competitive and really holds our players to a high standard. He holds himself to that high standard.”
While crediting assistant coach Tyler Stakiwicz for building a strong relationship with Asher and taking a lead role in his development, McElderry added “He’s (Asher) always been an amazing athlete, a shot stopper and can make incredible saves. I think it’s some of the intangibles that he is bringing to our group now that makes him really comfortable. Players listen to him and respect him. He is a major strength of our team. Between injuries and with a suspension due to a red card to one of our center backs earlier this season, there have been so many different players playing in front of him and we’ve just gone on with it. We’ve conceded three goals in five games. The guys have really done well. I’m just proud of how he is evolving as a player and a person in this group.”
Rutgers is currently in third place in the Big Ten and are back on the pitch this Monday, March 15 in a rematch against Penn State (2-1) in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions won 2-1 on February 23 in a game RU played a man down the final 40 minutes of the contest. They’ll then face Indiana (2-1) at home on Friday, March 19.
This program is steadily improving under McElderry and the play of the defense and Asher in goal is critical to their development as a team. Rutgers has allowed the third fewest goals out of nine Big Ten teams despite being the only squad to play as many as five games this season.
After winning just three games in conference play the previous three seasons, RU has equaled that total already this season. The Scarlet Knights are making a move in large part due to the strong play out of the back line. Every time Asher is in net, it’s clear that Rutgers has a chance to win against any Big Ten opponent.