Massachusetts men’s soccer coach Sam Koch doesn’t like to predict.
He doesn’t like to gaze too far ahead into the future and would rather focus on what he can control now.
But if he had to guess who the team’s offense would revolve around and who the Minutemen’s leading goal producer would be by season’s end, he would be hard pressed not to choose his senior captain and star striker, Bryant Craft.
“He’s probably one of the hardest workers on our team, if not the hardest,” said Koch. “He’s focused and determined every time he steps out on the field, although sometimes he doesn’t smile enough, because he’s so focused on what he’s trying to accomplish.”
After UMass posted its lowest win total since 1998 last season, smiling was the last thing on anyone’s mind. But supporters could at least be pleased after watching the development and rise of Craft.
Despite starting at midfield for the majority of his freshman season and his entire sophomore campaign, Craft was moved up top to serve as a starting forward for the Minutemen part way through the 2010 season.
After noticing that his original forward pair wasn’t producing how he would like and watching Craft score two goals in the first two games of the season, Koch’s decision to move Craft was a no-brainer.
“We didn’t have any other guys that were getting it done,” said Koch. “He was consistently dangerous when we played him up top.”
The results were more than satisfying for Koch as Craft led the team with seven goals (two assists) and earned National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-Region Honors.
Although it is no easy task, expectations are high for Craft entering his senior season, as he will try and help lift the Minutemen back to the NCAA Tournament, where they haven’t been since his freshman season in 2008.
“We expect him to be very dangerous going forward and [for] a handful to the teams [to] try [and] shut him down,” said Koch. “I think they’re going to be able to [focus] more on him than they have in the past, but I think we have a couple other players that are going to be able to get open because of that.”
Craft will be the target of most opposing defenses in large part due to the absence of Stuart Amick and Ben Arikian, who both graduated last spring.
Amick and Arikian, both four-year starters, were the heart and soul of the UMass midfield and the entire team.
There will certainly be a drop off in experience and talent in the midfield in their absence, which will force some more pressure on Craft to get the job done without their aid.
Still, Koch has full confidence in Craft and also said there are a few players who can take on the attacking-midfield duties left by Amick and Arikian from what he’s seen in the preseason.
“I think Bryant puts pressure on himself to try and perform at his best every game,” said Koch. “He’s pretty good at controlling the things that he can control, in his attitude and effort. He knows that he’s going to have some situations where he has no control over the outcome and the only thing he can control is making sure he’s putting his effort in and that I know he’ll do well.”
Like any striker, Craft’s success will rely on the players around him, notably his forward partner and the attacking midfielders feeding him passes.
It’s been a long preseason in trying to put together a starting lineup, but Koch has some players he’s been keeping an eye on who he believes will be valuable assets to the attack.
“I think we have two guys on the outside – Hellah [Sidibe] and Chris Roswess – that I think will be very hard to stop if they are focused on going forward,” said Koch. “Both of those outside midfielders are very dangerous when they see the opportunity to get in behind defenses and go to the end line and go to goal.”
A forward to play beside Craft has yet to be decided as well, but Koch has a good problem in having a pool of players to choose from to take the spot.
The only constant is Craft and Koch is certain that a lineup surrounding him will be decided carefully as to create the best possible compliment for his star striker and what is best for the team going forward.
“I think that is sort of going to be the key to our whole season,” said Koch. “If they can shut him down, do they shut down the other players, which I don’t think they will, which will open him up to get more time in space.
“I think he’s going to have a good season. Will he have the same amount of goals? Will he have twice as many goals? I don’t know. I know that he’s going to be giving us 100 percent every time he steps on the field.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.