UMass success begins with defense

By Steve Levine

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Looking back on recent seasons for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team, it’s hard to ignore the major role defense has played in its success.

So far this year, UMass isn’t exactly where it wants to be defensively. However, with the offense struggling to find consistency, the Minutemen understand that their defense will have to step up in order to win the majority of their Atlantic 10 conference games, which begin Oct. 8 against Xavier.

In 2007, UMass finished the season with a 17-8-1 record and a semi-final loss to No. 14 Ohio State in the NCAA tournament – marking the farthest the Minutemen have ever gone in the tournament. That year, the Minutemen allowed less than one goal per game (.79) largely because of goalkeeper Zack Simmons, who posted nine shutouts and a .849 save percentage.

UMass currently uses two goalkeepers: senior Chris Piekos and junior Shane Curran-Hays. UMass coach Sam Koch exudes confidence in both players but favors Piekos slightly as he has started four of the Minutemen’s six games. 

Piekos fully understands the importance of good team defense.

“[Defense] has been our tradition these past few years,” Piekos said. “This year we’re letting in a few more goals than we would like to so we have to figure that out. Every practice we have to keep getting better in the back. It starts with our defense which is traditionally strong. [We know] it is strong now and hopefully we can improve from today and start getting those clean sheets that we know we can get.”

UMass boasts an experienced backfield that prides itself on not giving up too many chances. The Minutemen have not lived up to expectations so far, allowing opponents to outshoot them on their way to an average of 1.50 goals per game.

Junior defender David Key knows a lot about playing good defense as he was a key contributor to the A-10’s top-ranked defense in 2009 which posted six shutouts. Key started 15 of 16 games last year and is considered the anchor of the UMass defense.

Playing along the wing, Key is responsible for not letting any opponent beat him down the corners or strike clean cross passes. Aside from shadowing opponents and keeping the ball in front of him, Key also has a hand in starting the offensive attack.

 “As far as set pieces around the midfield, I’m getting the balls into the box and I’m going to get the overlapping run,” Key said. “Coach looks at me to get forward a little bit more so I have that role.”

Frustrated after their most recent tie against Vermont, Koch stressed the importance of his team following its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. Most importantly, he wants his players to execute the fundamentals.

“[Coach] stresses mostly just doing the simple things like standing guys up and pushing them outside,” Key said. “Once they reach the [box] we have to play tight. [He wants us] to keep it simple, not try and do too much and [execute] the simple things.”

Steve Levine can be reached at [email protected]