Four games into the 2013 season, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team boasts a defense that is leagues ahead of the team’s offensive production.
As is the case with many young teams, offensive chemistry cannot be acquired overnight. There’s a learning curve associated with picking up the tendencies of other players and the speed of the game. UMass found this out all too well at the beginning of the season when they were held scoreless in its first three games.
But the Minutemen remained competitive due to an aggressive defensive attack, which stretched Evansville to a scoreless double-overtime tie and Bradley to a 1-0 overtime loss. The effort continued the following weekend, as UMass only allowed one goal to New Hampshire before taking a step backward and allowing three goals to Vermont.
Nevertheless, coach Sam Koch is pleased with his squad’s defensive approach, knowing that sometimes the simplest methods are the most effective.
“There’s no defensive scheme per say; it’s more just the basic principles of how to defend,” he said. “We’ve got to close them down quickly, which we do. We’ve got to force them to the weak side and force them to play quicker than they want.”
Opponents have appeared uncomfortable against UMass so far, scoring only five goals despite firing off 68 shot attempts. Koch is pleased with his team’s ability to limit high-percentage shots.
“I give credit to (goalkeeper Nick Ruiz’s) back four in front of him,” he said. “They did a good job making a lot of the shots very predictable which made it easier for him.”
Much of the defensive strategy is focused on forcing opposing teams to do things they potentially haven’t practiced or feel uncomfortable doing.
“Defense is more about making it more difficult for the other team to play and not ever let them get comfortable,” Koch said. “I think that’s what our guys are really doing well.”
The main beneficiary of the defensive pressure is redshirt freshman goalkeeper Nick Ruiz, who won the Atlantic 10 Men’s Soccer Rookie of the Week award last week. He has 28 saves on the season and has spent a considerable amount of playing time under pressure.
“A lot of credit goes to him,” Koch said. “He’s had to make some really tough saves and he’s made them and he’s done an unbelievable job holding onto the ball. He hasn’t given up hardly any rebounds. When you do that, you’re gonna do well.”
Rebounds take on an even higher level of importance when opposing teams spend a majority of the game on the attack. The Minutemen are currently doubled up in shots, allowing 68 while scoring only 34. Koch hopes the team’s defense will create more chances for its offense.
“We press very quickly, put them under pressure quickly,” he said. “If they do make a bad pass, we’re quick to pick those off and start our own attack.”
Koch went on, knowing there’s still room for improvement in a winless team.
“We’ve got to be a little better on our fronting, which we’re working on all the time, and take advantage of the opportunity that they give us to get balls in behind them and attack quickly,” he said.
With the defense holding strong, the offense has more opportunity to play catch-up.
“It seems like we’ve gotten over the hump offensively,” Koch said on his team’s most recent two-goal performance. “We’re creating better opportunities. Now we just have to finish them.”
The Minutemen will get a chance to showcase these improvements on Wednesday when they host Hartford at Rudd Field.
Mark Chiarelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.