Makeshift back line steps into spotlight as UMass shuts out La Salle

By Amin Touri

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

Entering the 2017 season, the defensive unit was expected to be the strong point for a Massachusetts men’s soccer team that was returning three of its four starting defenders from last fall.

On Saturday, with three of the normal back four—center back Konrad Gorich, as well as outside backs Kevin Boino and Casey Hamill—out with minor injuries, their replacements stepped up and kept a clean sheet regardless in a 2-0 win over La Salle (5-8-1, 1-4-0 Atlantic 10), as the Minutemen (9-2-3, 3-0-1 A-10) remained unbeaten at home.

“Very pleased with the result,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary. “La Salle just put five goals past a very good [George Washington] team, and we were down a couple of defenders, some young lads, new lads, came in today and I think they acquainted themselves fantastically. Delighted to get a clean sheet against a very potent attack.”

Junior Brandon Merklin was the only usual suspect in the back, as he was joined by sophomore Ryan Saul, freshman Eli Cronin and junior Luke Ryan on Saturday.

“We had some subs come in and start, and they played fantastic,” said Merklin. “They did well today, they did what they had to do. We kept on going and got the clean sheet.”

If there was an adjustment period, it was an extremely brief one, as the Minutemen held the Explorers to just a single shot on goal in the team’s fifth clean sheet of the year. A goal each from Jack Fulton and Samuel Asamoah was all the scoring that was needed, as the defense handled the rest.

“Defensive performance was huge,” Saul said, “especially early on in the first half they were lumping balls in, and we just stayed steady and headed them back out, kept doing the job over and over. Today was all about everyone doing little things right, everyone was doing their job, and when it all comes together, we get a win.”

Saul had an especially important role to play, in replacing Konrad Gorich in the center of the back line. Gorich is the fulcrum around which this defense operates, and Saul stepped up in a big way to keep things together in the absence of the 6’4 German.

“It felt good,” Saul said of the clean sheet. “It really shows that, top to bottom, everyone cares so much about winning and doing the right things. Coach tells us all the time, you never know when it’s going to be your time to come off the bench and do our job. You look at Eli and Luke today, two guys who haven’t played those positions before, they did a phenomenal job.”

Saul and Cronin have seen some time this season, having appeared in eight and nine games respectively. Ryan, however, stepped onto the field for only the third time this season, but the inexperience never showed.

“We’ve seen them in training, we know they’re good players,” O’Leary said. “The key thing for young lads and new lads that come in is to have a good mentality, and not to be afraid. These are all strong young men with strong mentalities, so they weren’t afraid of the occasion, and they played superbly. Luke, Ryan and Eli were terrific today.”

It’s unclear if the usual four will be back for Wednesday’s meeting with Rhode Island, but the Minutemen will get all they can handle at mid-week. Heading into Saturday’s games, the Rams led the conference with nine points after a perfect 3-0 start.

“We want three more points,” says O’Leary. “If we get three more points, we’re in with a very good chance of being in the tournament, so our focus is on the next game and getting the three points. It happens to be Rhode Island, who are a top team, so we will have our hands full.”

UMass will host URI at Rudd Field, where the Minutemen are a stellar 8-0-1 this season, on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.