UMass men’s soccer in desperate need to convert more opportunities on set piece plays in A-10 play

By Ross Gienieczko

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Daniel Maldonado/Daily Collegian

Daniel Maldonado/Daily Collegian

Soccer is not a game known for high scoring.

Sure, there’s the occasional offensive outburst. Some days, the net seems like it’s 50 feet wide and every once in a while a striker will feel like he just can’t miss.

More often, though, soccer is a game of defense. Quality scoring chances are hard to come by – there might only be one or two a game – and one breakthrough by either side can be the difference between winning and losing.

That’s why set piece plays (corner kicks, free kicks and the occasional throw-ins) are such an important part of the game. They present the opportunity for skilled corner or free kick takers to send the ball into dangerous areas in front of the net with no possibility of being blocked. The pause in play before a set piece also allows teams to place their biggest and highest-jumping players in the penalty area, poised to strike. Just one wrong step by a defender can leave the attacking team with a shot or header that, if taken well, the goalkeeper has little chance of stopping.

It’s no wonder the Massachusetts men’s soccer team is putting an emphasis on set piece plays ahead of its Atlantic 10 schedule that is sure to feature plenty of close games.

“There’s more ways to skin a cat, but set pieces are important,” Minutemen coach Fran O’Leary said. “A large percentage of goals come from set pieces. The more you have, the more you’re likely to convert.”

UMass (1-9) has done a good job defending set pieces this year, particularly corner kicks. Minutemen opponents have been given 68 corners on the season and have scored just twice. The problem is that UMass has yet to convert on a corner kick of their own, as they’re 0-for-35 on the year.

The Minutemen have struggled at times this year with producing corner kicks, but saw a marked improvement in Sunday’s 2-1 loss Brown, when it earned nine. Additionally, O’Leary was not concerned as much with the number of kicks taken as he was with UMass’ ability to finish. One area he singled out for improvement was getting the first touch after the delivery of a set piece play.

“What we’ve got to get better at is getting the first contact in the box,” O’Leary said. “Whoever gets the first contact in the penalty area usually has the joy. If the defender gets first contact, it’s cleared, if we get first contact, it’s usually an attempt on goal.”

And while set piece opportunities are not the only indicator of good offensive play, O’Leary said it usually means the team has done well with the ball on the offensive side.

To take corner and free kicks, the Minutemen will continue to rely on senior captain Will Ellis, who O’Leary said has done a commendable job.

Bigger, stronger players like Lenoir Sery, Brandon Merklin and Mark Morris will be counted on to be at the other end of Ellis’s deliveries.

“We’ll look for them to be aggressive and attack balls in the box,” O’Leary said.

If UMass wants to make any noise in the A-10 (where they were picked to finish 12th out of 13 teams in the preseason), it’ll need to find a way to start converting set pieces. Conference play brings about what O’Leary called an “intense” atmosphere, and familiarity bred between teams usually results in close games.

Conference play begins this Saturday at Saint Josephs at 7 p.m. UMass will play its first home game against an A-10 opponent on Oct.. 7, when it takes on Rhode Island at 4 p.m.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @RossGien.