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UMass men’s soccer looks to improve on recent success, exceed expectations in 2017

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian)

Having already kicked off its 2017 campaign, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team is chasing progress.

Coming off a strong 2016 season in which the Minutemen were 4-2-2 in conference play, good enough for an Atlantic 10 tournament berth, head coach Fran O’Leary and his charges are trying to build on that success.

UMass ranked just eighth in the 13-team A-10 conference preseason poll announced in August, but the Minutemen have been underestimated before.

“I think the last few years we’ve been ranked like 12th, 11th, and now eighth,” said senior forward Alex DeSantis, “so we’re moving up, but I think we’re better than what they might say.”

For the most part, however, UMass is unconcerned with perception within the conference.

“I personally don’t care about the rankings,” said senior Connor O’Dwyer. “I think they mean nothing. There is no limit for us. I believe we can go as far as we’re willing to put the work in to go.”

“We’re going to let them think what they want to think,” freshman Mike Rita said. “We’re just going to do our thing. We’re hoping to make the A-10 playoffs, but we’re capable of a lot.”

Having lost only a small number of key seniors to graduation, two of UMass’ three units will return quality players. The leading scorer in 2016, Ty Goncalves, is gone, along with goalkeeper Jorge Becerra and defender Josh Jess, but several key cogs remain.

Junior Konrad Gorich, a native of Eberbach, Germany, will lead the Minuteman back line once again this season, flanked by junior Brandon Merklin and redshirt junior Casey Hamill, to keep the majority of last year’s defensive unit together.

Gorich was also named to the A-10 preseason all-conference team, as one of the four defenders selected for the honor.

DeSantis is back for his final season at UMass, and will patrol the center of the pitch with O’Dwyer. With seniors Matthew Mooney and Henry Steinkamp charging up and down the wings, it’ll be an all-senior midfield. That experience has helped the Minutemen control possession throughout their first few games.

The majority of new faces for UMass will be on the front line, where most of the minutes will be logged by forwards new to Amherst. Rita, along with fellow freshman forward Davis Smith, saw extensive time in the team’s opener, and continue to play important minutes. Graduate transfer Andy Keklikoglou will help round out the attacking force for the Minutemen.

Despite major changes up front, UMass is already 2-0-1 on the season, logging in victories over St. Francis and Sacred Heart and a draw with Columbia. Scoring hasn’t been a problem, with six goals in three games at this point in the campaign.

For now, with a great start under its belt and the previous fall’s success to build upon, the potential exists for an even better 2017 season.

“We’re just going to go game by game,” DeSantis said. “See if we can build a winning streak, and see what happens.”

For O’Leary, simple improvement is the name of the game.

“Try to get better, that’s all we can do,” O’Leary said. “I don’t know if we’ll win another game, but all we try to do is get better.”

A slate of regional rivals is next for O’Leary and his men, as UMass will look to continue their strong start with a visit to New Hampshire on Tuesday evening, before returning home to host Boston University on Saturday.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

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