Rutgers men’s soccer (4-4-1) may have had its season end in heartbreak following a penalty shootout loss to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, but it only reinforced how far this program has come in such a short time.
The Scarlet Knights defeated the 2018 national champions earlier this season 2-0, which marked the first victory against the Terps as Big Ten foes. In Saturday’s rematch in the Big Ten Quarterfinals, Maryland entered the contest winners of four straight games. Despite that fact, RU gave the Terps all they could handle for 120 minutes before falling painfully short in the penalty shootout.
Rutgers took a 1-0 lead in the 75th minute off a beautiful volley from freshman Ola Maeland. He scored off of a cross from the leg of another freshman Moussa Sabaly.
Maryland tied the score in the 83rd minute before the game went into overtime. The Terps outshot RU 3-1 in the extra session, but Goalkeeper Oren Asher made a tremendous save and another strong play near the edge of the box to keep the score knotted at 1-1.
In the penalty shootout, Rutgers and Maryland were tied 4-4 after five rounds, so it went to sudden death. However, the Terps connected on its sixth penalty shot after RU missed to win it 5-4 and advance to the Big Ten semifinals. It was a gut wrenching end to a season in which the Scarlet Knights took a significant step forward.
After a combined 3-26-3 record in Big Ten play over the previous four seasons, McElderry’s team went 4-4 this season without the benefit of beginning play with a non-conference schedule. This team equaled a program best Big Ten regular season record that was set in 2015, which was the last time Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament. The fifth place finish was the program’s second best in seven seasons in the conference. They also exceeded preseason expectations after being picked seventh in the preseason coaches poll.
In his first season in 2019, McElderry led Rutgers to a 6-0-2 start and to no. 22 in the polls, which was the program’s first national ranking in four years. However, Big Ten play was a challenge and RU finished 7-8-3 overall and 1-6-1 in the league. Even though that season ended in disappointing fashion, the foundation for future success had been laid and Rutgers was able to build off of it this past season.
In speaking to McElderry after his first season about the progress made and what was needed to improve moving forward, he said “We started off pretty well. 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 addressed those issues before this season by bringing in the No. 26 nationally ranked recruiting class according to Top Drawer Soccer.
A key difference maker this season from that class was St. Joseph’s transfer Ritchie Barry, who led Rutgers with four goals, including two game winners. He earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors after finishing third in the conference in goals.
Freshmen who were key contributors this season included Colin Beasley, Cole Sotack, Gabriel Addo, Moussa Sabaly and Ola Maeland.
Aside from the newcomers, a strong core of returning players have developed that also have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Sophomores Hugo Le Guennec, Jackson Temple and Oren Asher are all major contributors. Guennec is key in defense, while Temple was second on the team with six points and the only player to have multiple goals and assists this season. Asher has become one of the best goalkeepers in the conference, as he produced the second most shutouts in the league with four and won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors twice this season.
Other key veterans that were valuable starters that embraced McElderry’s culture include Vince Borden, Pablo Avila, Thomas DeVizio and Vincenzo Pugliese.
The progress made this season, despite a disjointed offseason due to a global pandemic and a Big Ten only schedule, is a clear sign that the program is headed in the right direction under McElderry. After building Fordham into a consistent winner that included an Elite Eight appearance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, McElderry is showing real signs of turning around Rutgers in relatively short order. This past season proved that the future is bright for this program.