UMass men’s soccer returns home looking for season’s first win

By Anthony Chiusano

(Jeff Bernstein)
(Jeff Bernstein)

For the Massachusetts men’s soccer team, it has been a long wait to return home after a five-game road trip to open the season.

But come Friday, the Minutemen will welcome Fairfield to Rudd Field in their home opener, as they search for their first win of the season.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to be home,” senior forward Josh Schwartz said.  “We had a tough road schedule to start the season, so it’s definitely a little comforting to come home and play a team that’s familiar.”

UMass (0-5) enters Friday’s matchup struggling on offense, recovering from three consecutive shutout games and totaling two goals for the season.

Interim coach Devin O’Neill said that he hopes to jumpstart the Minutemen’s offense from the onset of the game by extending the team’s attack further up the field and applying added pressure closer to the Stags’ goal to create more opportunities for “garbage goals.”

“At times, we just don’t look as opportunistic as I would like us to in our scoring chances,” O’Neill said.  “We have to run with purpose, look for second opportunities and expect mistakes.  If we do those things, I think we’ll put the opponents under pressure, which may lead to some breaks and some bounces that will come our way.”

Schwartz said that this collective attack is something that was often missing from UMass’ offensive strategy in previous games.

“We tended to sometimes not get all of us into attack, so we’ve really been working on stepping up the full-field pressure,” Schwartz said.  “It’ll be a new style from us.”

One change that O’Neill said he is not currently looking to make to create offensive opportunities is moving senior defender Matt Keys to forward.  This was a strategy implemented last season by Sam Koch on Sept. 28 that lasted the remainder of the year.

With the Minutemen experiencing similar early-season struggles in 2013 – UMass began the year with an 0-8-1 record – Keys was moved up front and finished the season with 10 points, good enough for second on the team.  As recently as last Saturday against Boston University, Keys was moved to forward in the late minutes of a 2-0 loss.

Despite this cameo, O’Neill said that Keys’ impact on the defensive unit, which has allowed five goals in the past three games after conceding nine goals in the first two games, is too crucial to make the position swap again.

“We want to be a team that is pretty hard to play against and part of that is that you don’t concede a lot of goals,” O’Neill said.  “We’re not built to be a team that relies on three or four goals to win, so good defense is always critical.”

However, according to O’Neill, he will continue using Keys on the Minutemen’s frontline in some late-game situations when UMass is looking for a goal.

O’Neill said that the 6-foot-4 Keys will also play a role on Friday in combatting the Minutemen’s height disadvantage against Fairfield (2-1-1).

While Keys is one of two UMass players that are listed above six feet – along with sophomore defender Josh Jess – the Stags boast eight position players at 6-foot-1 or taller on their roster.  According to O’Neill, this was a similar problem that the team faced when trying to defend the Terriers in Saturday’s loss.

“In certain situations, that can cause problems, especially in defensive restarts,” O’Neill said.  “We want to try to limit those opportunities and do a good job defensively in those situations.”

Prior to Friday’s game, there will be a short ceremony at Rudd Field honoring Koch, who lost his battle with sinus cancer in July after 23 seasons as the coach of the Minutemen.  Kickoff is set for 3 p.m.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.