There’s no doubt heading into Tuesday’s match with Syracuse that the Massachusetts men’s soccer team would be facing its biggest challenge to date.
The Orange (8-2) came into the game ranked second in the nation in goals scored, averaging over two per game while taking over 15 shots per game with four players exceeding the three-goal mark.
The defensive statistics are even more compelling as Syracuse is ranked second in the nation (as of Sept. 24) in shutout percentage with seven on the season while surrendering just five goals.
The Orange’s 2-0 win on Tuesday made it eight shutouts for Syracuse, this time at the hands of a young Minutemen squad in their last official game before conference play begins on Oct. 6 against Rhode Island. The Minutemen have an exhibition match in Montreal, Quebec on Sunday before the Atlantic 10 opener.
UMass coach Sam Koch knew his team could not get away with mistakes against a dangerous Orange team.
“We didn’t play well, and we had to play well to beat them,” Koch said. “We made some mistakes and they capitalized on them … you can’t give them too many (scoring opportunities) because they’re gonna put them away, and they’re having a heck of a year this year.”
While Koch was not happy with the results or the effort of his players, it appeared the Minutemen simply ran into a far superior team.
UMass (3-4-2) was outshot, 16-4, in the contest and failed to get a shot on goal, a result of Syracuse maintaining possession of the ball for a majority of the afternoon. As a result, goalkeeper Brian Frame (six saves) was forced to spend most of the game under immense pressure.
“(Syracuse) is a different type of team we’ve seen so far,” Frame said. “A lot of passing, a lot of movement off the ball.”
However, the Minutemen do get the unofficial clean slate now with conference play opening up in less than two weeks, something top teams, such as the Orange, are meant to prepare a young team, like UMass, for.
This won’t be the only game in which UMass faces tough competition, Koch said.
“This was a team that’s gonna be like at least three of the games on our (conference) schedule,” Koch said. “Charlotte (on the road on Oct. 19) is a really tough place to play, Dayton and Xavier in their place (Nov. 2 and 4, respectively), all three are top 25 teams, all three are at their home field.
“This was a game that was going to be similar to that and we’re gonna have to play a lot better if we’re going to win those games.
Koch added that the stingy opponents will have a positive effect on the team.
“It’s good to play good opponents,” he said. “You want to play good opponents because it gets you better. Hopefully we learned some things (on Tuesday) and it shows when we play Rhode Island.”
Koch is fortunate that his team has a chance to start from scratch after an inconsistent non-conference slate, but is also just as aware that conference games are matches the Minutemen “need to win.”
“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s gonna be a hard conference schedule.”
While they face the challenge of a conference that includes the College Cup finalist 49ers, the Minutemen feel learning from a tough game against a team as talented as Syracuse should only make them better prepared for the challenge of the conference schedule.
“This will be as good a team as we’ll see in the conference,” Frame said. “It’s a different look too. We’ve haven’t really seen a team that kept the ball as much, didn’t play as direct. So I think that’ll be good especially when we go to play Charlotte, a really good team down there, so I think it’s a good test for us going into conference (play).”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.