UMass men’s soccer prepared to shock the Atlantic 10 again in 2016

By Philip Sanzo

(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)
(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)

It has been nearly 10 months since the Massachusetts men’s soccer team fell to Fordham 1-0 in the first round of the Atlantic-10 tournament. With the 2016 season already underway, UMass hopes to repeat, if not improve on, its fourth place A-10 finish from a year ago.

The Minutemen (0-2-1) turned what appeared to be a doomed 2015 season into one of the best conference finishes in the program’s recent history. Now the question is, was it just luck?

The Minutemen will tell you absolutely not.

Fran O’Leary, in his second season as UMass head coach, has high expectations for this year’s squad.

“I think that we finished the year, we finished the spring with a terrific camaraderie and work ethic,” O’Leary said. “All indications are that we will maintain that coming into the fall.”

The Minutemen redeemed a seemingly lost 2015 campaign by going 4-3-1 in conference play to close out the regular season. In the eight conference games, UMass scored nine goals. It scored only five in the previous 10 non-conference games to start the season.

The fourth place finish came as a shock to most in the conference after the Minutemen were picked to finish 12th in the coach’s preseason poll.

UMass is once again in a similar situation. A preseason poll ranked them 10th in the conference, a mark too low according to the players.

“That came out I believe [Aug. 24],” senior midfielder Ty Goncalves said, “and everybody on the team once they saw it was like, ‘we think that’s way too low for us.’”

Goncalves is no stranger to success at the collegiate level. As a member of the Holy Cross Crusaders in 2013, he made it to the Patriot League Championship game where they lost to Navy 2-0.

Goncalves said he believes that the 2016 Minutemen have that same potential.

“I do see that potential in our team right now, absolutely,” Goncalves said. “Everyone has the right mentality. Where we have rebounded to fourth coming off a poor start to last season, if we start strong this year I think we’ll keep carrying that and keep getting better every day.”

The senior envisions his team finishing no worse than fourth and believes that first place is definitely a realistic possibility.

“I think we are really looking to actually make a run in the tournament and not go out first round this year,” Goncalves said.

However, in order for a winning season to become a reality, the Minutemen need to overcome the beginning-of-the-season slump that has plagued them in recent years.

The first half of the season, like many collegiate sports, primarily consists of opponents out of conference. Occasionally, these opponents are nationally ranked such as No. 6 Syracuse, a squad UMass lost to earlier this season.

Despite the increased difficulty of the opponents, O’Leary does not believe that out-of-conference teams are any more talented than teams in the A-10.

“I don’t think [non-conference teams] are better competition,” O’Leary said. “I think the A-10 is a terrific conference. I think what happened was we were getting to know the guys, they were getting to know us and I think that if you look at the lineup at the start of the season compared to 10 games in, it was a different lineup, guys were in different positions. Guys have to understand where they’re playing.”

The same could be said this year as the Minutemen are still working out their starting 11 players.

Though the Minutemen still remain winless in 2016, the team is not even close to panic mode. If nothing else, last season UMass proved its resilience and poise when faced with its 1-10 start crisis.

“I think tremendous credit goes to last season’s squad,” O’Leary said. “When you have a tough start, teams have a tendency to just fracture, our group stayed together. So it is a pretty special group.”

After graduating only five seniors, much of the team stood the same, giving the Minutemen a leg up in 2016.

Goncalves believes that the nine returning starters add good experience to the overall young team. The Minutemen have 11 underclassmen and only three seniors.

UMass’ hope of making a run in the A-10 tournament is not simply a pipe dream, and that was made evident to Goncalves when players returned from summer vacation.

“The thing that impressed me the most is that every returner came in fit,” Goncalves said. “That was a huge thing, like coach told us, ‘everyone come in fit, everyone come in strong,’ and I feel like all of the returners did their work over the summer and improved.”

Instead of focusing on specific wins and accomplishments, UMass is focusing on getting better every day.

“Everyone comes in everyday and works hard,” Goncalves said of his teammates. “No one slacks off at all and the work rate is high and the mentality of the team is great.”

Philip Sanzo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.