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Monday, August 24, 2015

Minutemen head on road to face conference foes

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

The Massachusetts soccer team looks to continue its hot start into conference play when it heads to Philadelphia, Penn. this weekend for games against Temple and Saint Joseph’s.

After a 3-3-6 start to the season, the Minutemen opened Atlantic 10 play with a 2-0-1 record, good for third in the conference.

UMass now looks to add to its momentum for Friday’s match against Temple. The Owls (4-6-2, 2-1 A-10) sit just behind the Minutemen in the conference and are most recently coming off a 2-1 double overtime loss against Xavier.

Temple’s strongest aspect is its defense, which has allowed 12 goals in 12 games and no scores in five of those games.

With his team playing well of late, UMass coach Sam Koch isn’t looking too deep into the Owls’ defense.

“Indiana’s defense is great, UConn’s defense is great,” Koch said. “We’ve gone against good defenses. We just have to finish on chances that we create. We’re finishing on those opportunities at times very well and other times we’re not. We’ve worked on it this week and hopefully it will pay off on Friday.”

Offensively, the Owls boast two strong players in midfielders Cody Calafiore and Tyler Witmer. Calafiore has five goals and two assists in 11 games, while Witmer has three goals and two assists in 12 games.

Last weekend, Calafiore scored all three of Temple’s goals during its two-game stretch in which the Owls went 1-1. His offensive prowess earned him Philadelphia Soccer Six Player of the Week honors. Calafiore’s five goals currently rank him third in the conference.

Still, Koch prefers to focus on his own players instead of worrying about the opposition.

“We’ve been sending messages to them about No. 7 and No. 4,” Koch said, referring to forward Bryant Craft and midfielder Ben Arikian, who are currently leading UMass with 10 and seven points, respectively. “They’re going to have to worry about us.”
Considering the similarities between both teams, Friday’s game promises to be a good matchup.

Both teams are very aggressive and hard working. With 185 fouls, UMass ranks second in the league, while Temple ranks fourth with 177.

“They’re a hard working team and they’re going to put us under a lot of pressure,” Koch said. “They work extremely hard defensively and they’re going to try to make us make mistakes.”

A way around that, Koch said, is by staying focused and using effective one-touch and two-touch passes in order to prevent the Owls defense from keying in on one particular area of the field. Koch also stressed the importance of playing quickly and moving without the ball.

Defensively, UMass is getting better week by week. Before conference play, the Minutemen saw their defense break down at times, usually during critical points in games. In three conference games, UMass has allowed just one goal.

“[The defense] is getting better every week,” Koch said. “I think we should talk a little bit more [on the field] but it’s a lot better than it has been and that’s partly because the forwards have been doing a really good job defending.”

UMass goalkeeper Chris Piekos has certainly held his own on the defensive end as well. For the season, Piekos boasts a 0.87 goals against average and a .855 save percentage. Since conference play began, though, Piekos has stopped 16 of 17 shots, registering two shutouts.

“We expect [Friday’s game] to be hard-fought,” Koch said. “We have to play quickly and pass and move; we’d be foolish not to.”

On Sunday, the Minutemen will remain in Philadelphia to play Saint Joseph’s.

The Hawks (1-10, 0-3 A 10) have had a difficult time this year. If the Minutemen can defeat the Owls on Friday, a weekend sweep could be quite attainable.

“We’re worrying about Friday’s game first,” Koch said. “But Saint Joseph’s is not an easy place to play. We need to put our early chances away so that we can take control of the game. The longer the game [remains close], the tougher it is to beat them.”

Steve Levine can be reached at slevine@student.umass.edu.

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