UMass men’s soccer takes on Rhode Island with top conference spot on the line

By Thomas Johnston

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

With four games remaining on its schedule, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team has answered just about every test put in front of them, not having been defeated since a 1-0 loss to Dartmouth on Sept. 12.

On Wednesday, UMass will have to answer one more challenge, as it takes on a Rhode Island squad that is tied with the Minutemen and Fordham atop the Atlantic 10 standings with 10 points.

The Rams (8-2-3, 3-0-1 A-10) are led by reigning A-10 offensive player of the week Stavros Zarokostas. The sophomore has scored back-to-back goals for a URI squad that hasn’t been defeated in its last ten games.

While Zarokostas is the main offensive threat for the Rams, they have plenty of others who pose a threat to the UMass defense, as they are scoring 1.77 goals per game.

“They’re comfortable on the ball,” UMass coach Fran O’Leary said. “They have a lot of good players, they’re well-coached, they’re well-organized and they have players who are comfortable on the ball. Their ball speed is good, their movement is good and they obviously pose a threat going forward.”

The Minutemen (9-2-3, 3-0-1 A-10) are well equipped to handle a strong opposing attack. Through 14 games, they have allowed just 12 goals.

“They’re a high scoring team, we’re a decent defensive team, so it should be a good battle,” O’Leary said. “We’ll do what we usually do; when we’re pressing, we’ll do it together, and when we’re sitting off we’ll look to do it together.”

O’Leary understands that his squad will have to be focused from the opening kickoff if they want to come out victorious.

“I think the key thing is maintaining good concentration levels,” O’Leary said, “particularly in our own penalty area. You’ve got to defend the box well against powerful attacking teams, so we’ll have to be on our toes, be hyper-focused to match their runs and come first in the penalty area.”

UMass will be happy that this game is taking place in Amherst, as Rudd Field has provided a great home field advantage for the Minutemen who are 8-0-1 on their home grass.

The Minutemen’s strong play this season hasn’t gone unnoticed. For the first time since 2008, UMass received votes in the United Coaches Top 25 poll.

Even with the national recognition, O’Leary understands that the team has bigger aspirations than just getting national votes.

“It’s not anything to get excited about,” O’Leary said. “The only ranking is the one at the end. The only thing that matters is the game against Rhode Island, and to try and get three points. We’ll take three points over any ranking any game of the week.”

While O’Leary intends to keep his team focused on the next opponent, it is hard to ignore how much the Minutemen have exceeded expectations this season. They were picked to finish eighth in the A-10 in the preseason poll, yet with four games to go have the best overall record in the conference.

“I think they are doing something special,” O’Leary said. “We were picked to finish eighth, so starting with our seniors…we’re over achieving. How far it goes, who knows? I think every time our group steps on the field they’re doing something special.”

With 10 points in the A-10, UMass is one win away from getting another three points, which would just about secure them a spot in the A-10 tournament.

“Historically, if you’ve got 13 points, you’ve got a strong chance, so we’ve got to win a game,” O’Leary said of making it to the postseason. “That’s all we want to do, is win a game. I know it sounds boring, but we can’t concentrate on top spots until you get a spot, so we’ve just got to win a game somewhere along the way.”

Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday at Rudd Field.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @TJ__Johnston.