UMass soccer deploys new formation with Keys, Jess

By Nicholas Casale

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Flickr)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Flickr)

A tweak in the lineup, a change of personnel or a well-rehearsed set play can change the tide of any game. Indeed, the correct use of space and intelligent deployment of players within a cohesive formation can be the difference between winning and losing.

For the Massachusetts men’s soccer team (1-11-1, 0-3-1 Atlantic 10 Conference), finding a system that gets results has been a challenge. All that really can be done at this point is to try and shuffle around the deck until the pieces start to fall into place.

In the past few games, such a tactical change was made when interim coach Devin O’Neill deployed senior defender Matt Keys into the center forward position. It’s not rare for Keys to maraud forward and attack, as he is a regular threat on set pieces, but the alteration gives the Minutemen a 6-foot-4 target to consistently aim at up the field. The move also allows UMass to drop a player into the midfield to win possession, as Keys can play as the lone forward and hold the ball up for his team.

“Matt is a great player, he can really play any position on the field,” O’Neill said. “In practice during shooting drills he is usually one of the best guys and more importantly he has scored a couple goals this year. I think that he really gives us something different offensively.”

The key to making this maneuver work is the player who has moved into Keys’ role. Strong in the air and never one to shy away from a tackle, versatile sophomore Josh Jess gives the Minutemen valuable minutes at the back. While Jess played most of the season as a center midfielder, he was able to move seamlessly into the role of center-half. Having been a defender for his high school and premier team, his new role felt natural.

When asked about the change, Jess praised his teammates for his speedy development.

“I had played every position over the years, but playing alongside someone like Matt Keys has been hugely beneficial,” Jess said. “He’s a leader, and whenever you are doing something wrong he’ll take you under his wing and help you sort out those mistakes. Playing against him and everyone else in practice really makes you better as a player, and it’s fun to get the better of them too.”

“Josh played center back back home for his club, but we didn’t know if he would be rusty and ready to go. To his credit, he slotted in really nicely and has done a really great job for us,” O’Neill said.

The change in shape is one that could help the Minutemen find goals, but cannot account for some of the other issues UMass has faced this season. The team is incredibly young. It has been unlucky to lose in the dying minutes of several games, and at times have been simply outclassed by better competition.

But going into the home stretch of the season, Keys should start to score more goals for the Minutemen, and Jess will be a capable replacement in his absence on the back line.

Nicholas Casale can be reached at [email protected]