Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Minutemen head to George Mason looking to clinch home-field advantage

By Amin Touri

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts men’s soccer team is on the road this weekend, making the trip to George Mason with the possibility of a home game in the Atlantic 10 tournament hanging in the balance.

With two games left to play, the Minutemen (11-2-3, 5-0-1 A-10) sit atop the conference table with 16 points, one point ahead of second-place Virginia Commonwealth.

The Patriots (5-7-2, 0-5-1) are in the midst of a disappointing season, at the bottom of the standings with just a single point on the year. It’s been a steep decline for a team that was nationally ranked as high as No. 22 back in September, before the conference slate kicked off.

“George Mason is a very good team,” Coach Fran O’Leary said. “They were nationally ranked early in the season. They’ve struggled in the conference — their schedule, perhaps, is the toughest. They’ve had a brutal conference schedule against a lot of the top teams, so we’re going to have our hands full going down against them. They can score goals, they scored two against Saint Louis and lost on the last kick of the game, so we’re going to have to bring our best game to be competitive on the road against them.”

Despite George Mason’s seat at the rear of the A-10 pecking order, O’Leary and his side have no intention of looking past their next opponent.

“We don’t overlook anyone,” O’Leary said. “We can’t overlook anyone. The day we start to think we’re good, is the day when this fun ride ends.”

The Patriots are led by senior striker Henning Dirks, who has carried a bulk of the production this season. Dirks has scored more than a third of George Mason’s goals this season; his eight scores are tied a top of the A-10 with UMass’ Davis Smith.

Finding that goal-scoring form in conference play has been a struggle, however, as Dirks has scored just once in six appearances in the A-10.

The Minutemen will head to Virginia seeking three points, and those three points have extra meaning this late in the season. With a win over conference bottom-dwellers George Mason, UMass would seal an insurmountable lead over fifth-place Dayton, guaranteeing itself a top-four seed in the A-10 tournament and a home game in the opening round.

“That’s the next thing,” O’Leary said. “One more win, and we get one extra game on Rudd. That’s our focus. One more win buys us an extra home game, and our guys love playing on Rudd. We’re hyper-focused, we have to find a way in these next two games to get a win against two very good teams, and if we can somehow sneak out a win, we’ll be delighted.”

The fact that the Minutemen are even in position to secure a top spot in the tournament comes as something of a surprise—UMass was picked eighth in the A-10 Preseason Poll.

This isn’t new, as the Minutemen have been underestimated before, and O’Leary takes some pride in the way his teams have exceeded expectations year after year.

“I’m very proud,” O’Leary said. “I’m very proud of last year’s team, and the year before. Each year we’ve been here, our teams have exceeded expectations. I think we were picked to finish 12th my first year, and the guys tied for fourth, we were picked 11th last year and we were fourth, we were picked eighth this year and we’re sitting in first. I’ve been proud of all the teams we’ve had here, but I’m particularly proud of this group.”

Kickoff on Saturday night is scheduled for 7 p.m. After the trip to George Mason, UMass will host its final regular season home game, taking on defending conference champions Fordham in the regular season finale on Nov. 1.

 

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

About the Writer
Amin Touri, Sports Editor
Luwane Pipkins' 30 points keyed the Minutemen’s biggest win of the season.
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