The non-conference schedule of the Massachusetts men’s soccer team can best be described like this: few highs and a lot of lows.
UMass started the season with a goalless draw against Evansville. Then came a treacherous eight-game losing streak mired by one-goal losses, which finally came to an end last Saturday with a 5-2 win over Siena.
There were a lot of bumps and bruises early on, but now the Minutemen have a chance to heal from early season woes.
Atlantic 10 play couldn’t have come soon enough for UMass. For a couple weeks now, Minutemen coach Sam Koch has been prepping his team for conference play in the hopes of putting the rocky start behind them.
“We’ve stressed this whole time that these (non-conference) games are getting us ready for the Atlantic 10,” he said following a 2-1 loss to Harvard.
That’s the beauty of college sports: a team can break down its schedule into two parts— non-conference play and conference play— and realize that a bad start to the season does not mean the end of the year. Conference play acts as a new beginning for a team like UMass.
It isn’t definite, though, that A-10 play will be any different than the first 10 games of the season. After all, the Minutemen open up conference play on the road at No. 17 Virginia Commonwealth and then go to George Mason, who was in the top-25 until last weekend.
On top of that, the A-10 is one of the strongest conferences in NCAA Division I soccer. Besides the Rams and the Patriots, the conference also boasts Saint Louis, currently No. 21 in the country, and Dayton, who always poses a tough challenge for UMass.
It’s realistic to believe that the Minutemen are just now heading into the tough part of their schedule and that the non-conference portion should’ve been the tune-up. Plus, let’s not forget that this team isn’t the most experienced group.
This year’s installment for UMass has only five upperclassmen on the team surrounded by 14 freshmen. That isn’t necessarily a recipe that spells success. While the team has shown signs of improvement, it’s evident that this team is still a year or two away from being a real contender to get back into the A-10 tournament, a place it hasn’t been since 2008.
But on the flip side, the Minutemen are coming off by far their best game of the season and can use that as momentum moving forward. The five goals against the Saints more than doubled the team’s total for the season and provided some much needed confidence on the offensive side of the ball.
Led by junior Josh Schwartz, UMass is now averaging just under a goal per game— not good by any means, but a drastic improvement from where it was prior to the win.
And don’t look past the fact that the Minutemen have a substantial amount of time off before the VCU game.
“We have a good 10 days to train and make sure that we’re ready for the conference, so things are good,” Koch said following the Siena game.
In total, UMass has 13 days off between the game against the Saints and the trip to Richmond to take on the Rams, but with such a young, inexperienced team, that amount of time off to train and prepare is almost as valuable as actual game experience. It gives players time to heal any injuries, work on tactics for the VCU game and even clear their heads.
Koch has been a firm believer for weeks now that everything up to this point in the season is to get his team ready for conference play. The improvement in performance is noticeable, but it’s hard to believe that the results will be much different.
But, who knows, maybe all this team needs is a fresh start.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached @[email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Strohecker.