Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass soccer loses centerpiece, modern foundation over offseason

By Herb Scribner

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Jeff Bernstein

Jeff Bernstein

It’s a chaotic mess at Rudd Field as the Massachusetts men’s soccer team prepares for its 2011 season.

The Minutemen will have to deal with the loss of four senior players, three of whom brought the Maroon and White to the 2006 College Cup semi finals.

Though the Minutemen failed in the College Cup semi final, suffering a 1-0 loss to Ohio State, it allowed then-freshmen Ben Arikian, Stuart Amick and Chris Vaccaro to blossom into powerhouses, and this fall, they will no longer wear the Maroon and White colors.

Last season, the Minutemen pushed forward with those three players leading the charge. However, the elephant in the room was always there. Arikian, Amick, Vaccaro, as well as agile and tough goalkeeper, Chris Piekos, were going to graduate in the spring and leave the team behind – creating a black hole in the heart of UMass soccer.

On the pitch, the four now-graduated seniors were the centerpiece. From each aspect of the field, these four players had an outstanding influence on how the game proceeded.

Arikian, Amick and Vaccaro controlled the midfield for most games. Arikian had a calming presence on the ball while Amick and Vaccaro pushed forward with unparalleled flair and confidence.

Piekos, the dynamite goalkeeper from last season who finished the season with 82 saves, including a whopping 12 (career-high) against Dartmouth, held down the net and limited many chances from going past him.

UMass shouldn’t have too much of a problem in the net this upcoming season, however, as goalkeeper Shane Curran-Hays had the opportunity to work with Piekos and Zack Simmons, the latter of whom went on to play for the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer, over the past few seasons.

The midfield will be in trouble though, with its main components graduating. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up to slow the pace or push forward with the ball. Sophomore Tyler Cleverdon showed promise last year with a Clint Dempsey-like stride, though he will be absent from the team, lost to a season-ending injury.

Senior Chris Stoker will ultimately control the midfield this season as the lone midfield senior. He doubles as a forward, so it’s without question that he’ll push forward much like Vaccaro, Amick and Arikian did last season. Senior Chris Roswess, who is listed as a forward, may double back and help Stoker with the midfield as well.

One man can’t be an entire midfield, though. Stoker will join up with sophomore Mike Matlock, who didn’t play a minute last season, Clifton Kipper, a graduate student who hasn’t played for the Minutemen and freshmen Robert Sena and Zack Miller. It’ll be an entirely new midfield, which may require UMass head coach Sam Koch to change his formation from a 4-5-1 into something more dynamic and pressure orientated.

Though all three College Cup stars gave the Minutemen strength on the field, it’s their off-the-field presence which will affect UMass much more. Their graduation marks the end of an era for Koch, who has been at the helm for over 20 years.

Last season, following the early success of Arikian, Amick and Vaccaro, the team had high hopes to return to the College Cup. The atmosphere during practice and post-game often screamed with confidence that the squad could push forward and make a run, when in reality it barely had a chance to make it out of the Atlantic 10 conference.

It was almost as if the Minutemen were clinging onto their shot of greatness a few years back – more or less looking to the past rather than the future. Confidence is a sign of a good locker room in any sport, but being in touch with reality and understanding where the team will actually end up is equally important. The Minutemen didn’t understand this.

As strong of a coach as Koch has been for the Minutemen, he faces a very tough road ahead. Fortunately for UMass, Koch has had plenty of experience shifting and remaking teams over the past 20 seasons. This is one of those focal points he’s had to deal with often, where he must remake an entire approach to the way the game is played.

Leading the players in 2011 will be senior captain Bryant Craft, who will bring the Minutemen into a new era of soccer – one that doesn’t involve any College Cup memories. He should be the centerpiece for a new UMass team in a new age of soccer in Amherst, which is completely necessary if the Minutemen are to finally move on from its long-lost glory days.

One of the benefits of the losses suffered in the offseason is that the Minutemen can build a new foundation. They will no longer be dragged back by the memories of the College Cup. They can make a new stamp on Minutemen soccer, though it might take a little longer than many of the players might hope.

Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected]

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