The Minutemen (3-9, 1-1 A-10) will try to put together their first winning streak and road win of the season on Friday night when they face Fordham. Then the squad will immediately get back on the road for a Sunday afternoon contest against La Salle.
UMass seems to be beginning to hit its stride heading into this weekend’s action. After starting the season 1-8 and registering just three goals in those nine games, the Minutemen have won two out of their last three contests – including taking nationally-ranked Charlotte to double overtime – and have tallied four goals in that span.
The Minutemen are also fresh with a feeling of optimism with the impending return of senior forward and captain Bryant Craft, who has missed the last four games with a quad injury. He could come back to the lineup this weekend.
His presence can only help an offense that seems to be turning a corner, as freshman Josh Schwartz and sophomore Brett Canepa have stepped up mightily in his absence. Together, the tandem has contributed to four-of-five Minutemen goals since Craft went down with his injury.
Still, Craft or not, UMass coach Sam Koch is preparing and making sure his squad is ready for two tough road tests this weekend.
The Rams (6-4-1, 2-0-0 A-10) are coming off a strong opening weekend in which they began conference play unbeaten. On the road last Friday, they defeated perennial conference powerhouse Xavier ,1-0, before defeating Dayton by the same score on Sunday.
Fordham will open a five-game home stand of its own on Friday when it hosts the Minutemen, and will also put its three-game winning streak on the line in the contest.
“They’re a very good team,” said Koch. “[They’re] organized well, have good players pretty much at every position. They won’t make many mistakes, and so they’re not going to give you a chance. You have to beat them, you have to combine around them, you have to catch them in transition, and they won’t give you a lot.”
Pacing the Rams on offense is forward Matt Courtenay. Although the senior has only started in three games, he leads the team with three goals in the 10 games he has seen action in.
Additionally, six other players have recorded a goal for Fordham this season, making the task that much harder for the UMass defense to key in on their attack.
“We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes,” said Koch. “I wouldn’t say they’re quick to pounce on them, but that’s what they’re looking for. They’re good at serving balls in the box so we have to make sure we prevent them from getting their services in. We have to make it hard for them to play, which at times I think we do very well, but at times we don’t.
“So can we now put it all together for 90 minutes? This is probably as important of a game for us to do that as any.”
On Sunday, the Minutemen will match up against the Explorers (3-6-2, 1-0-1 A-10), who, like Fordham, haven’t lost a conference game in the early going.
Although its record may not indicate it, La Salle is further proof of the depth and unpredictability of the A-10. Similar to the Rams, the Explorers opened conference play on the road last week, beating Dayton 2-0 before drawing a tie with Xavier. They will return for their home opener on Sunday, which is sure to be a difficult environment for the Minutemen to enter.
“They’re a very good counter-attack team,” said Koch. “They’re very organized in how they counter attack. Their patterns on the counter are rehearsed, they do it very well. They’re a better scoring team than Fordham, but they also give up a lot of goals, so that game will be more if we can outscore them.”
The Explorers attack will be led by sophomore Jason Plumhoff. The midfielder has scored a team-leading four goals and provided three assists so far this season, and will surely give the UMass defense headaches all afternoon.
On paper, this game looks to be a shootout, as La Salle goalkeeper John McCarthy has given up 14 goals in the nine games he has started, and registers just an .811 save percentage heading into the game.
Kickoff on Friday night is scheduled for 7 p.m. while Sunday’s contest is slated for a 1 p.m. start.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.