With its non-conference portion of the schedule out of the way, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team will kick off its Atlantic 10 schedule this weekend at Rudd Field.
After their victory over then-No. 19 Bradley last Saturday, the Minutemen (2-8-0) will welcome another ranked test in the form of No. 14 Charlotte on Friday to begin this season’s conference play before playing host to Saint Louis on Sunday.
UMass will be trying to build on its momentum from its big win over the Braves on Saturday, a 2-1 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak.
It’s likely to be a difficult task to accomplish on Friday. The 49ers (7-2-0), who were ranked first in this season’s A-10 preseason rankings, are off to a hot start, having beaten two ranked opponents in their non-conference schedule in UNC-Greensboro and Virginia.
Although it’s coming off a loss to then-No. 3 Maryland on Sept. 27th, Charlotte has had time to rest and prepare for its A-10 slate. UMass coach Sam Koch knows as much as anyone that the 49ers pose a difficult matchup for any team.
“They’re good,” said Koch. “Charlotte is the top team in our conference. They’re very direct, they’re very hard working, they make it extremely hard to play, they’re the one team I thought last year that flat-out beat us.”
“Now, I hope our confidence is back, but you’re going against the best team that is on our schedule, so you’ve got to play really well to beat them,” continued Koch. “Can we do it? No question. Can they beat us? No question. So it’s just do we do what we need to do better than we have, and if we do, I think it’s going to be an exciting game.”
The 49ers boast a conference-leading five players on the A-10 Preseason All-Conference team, and they are deep and talented from its back line all the way up front.
One of those players is senior Evan James, who is Charlotte’s leading goal-scorer with four goals through nine games. The UMass defense will have to keep an eye on him as well as a plethora of other players in Charlotte’s attack, including juniors Jennings Rex and Donnie Smith, who have each contributed three goals. Altogether, eight different 49ers have scored a goal this year.
The Minutemen won’t have it easy in the offensive zone either, especially with senior captain Bryant Craft still out nursing a strained quad. UMass is set to face sophomore Klay Davis in goal, and two defenders in seniors Charles Rodriguez and Isaac Cowles who made the aforementioned A-10 Preseason All-Conference team.
In nine games, Davis has only allowed eight goals – three of which were surrendered against then-No. 3 Maryland – and has registered a .771 save percentage with 27 saves.
Following Friday’s contest, UMass will welcome the Billikens (2-5-1) for its second conference game of the season on Sunday.
“They’re a solid team too,” said Koch. “You don’t win 11 national championships by having a bad program. They will be a very good opponent. I think [Charlotte and Saint Louis] are the two toughest teams to open up with, but we’ve got to beat them. Can we beat them? If we play well, I think we can.”
The Billikens enter this weekend winless in their last three games, and similarly to UMass, they’ll play a pair of games this weekend to kick off conference play, the first of which is at Rhode Island on Friday before heading to Amherst on Sunday.
Leading the attack for SLU is freshman midfielder Raymond Lee, who has netted four goals on the season and who is part of a Billiken attack that has had six different players tally a goal this season.
Last season, the Minutemen ended their regular season campaign with games at then-No. 18 Charlotte and SLU, losing to the 49ers, 2-0, before drawing with the Billikens, 2-2, in double overtime in the finale.
Kickoff on Friday is set for 3:30 p.m., while Sunday’s match will get started at 1 p.m.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com.