In a breakout season for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team, one player’s breakout year has earned him some new hardware.
Freshman Davis Smith had an excellent year in his first collegiate season, bagging nine goals to finish fourth among all Atlantic 10 goal-scorers. His efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named A-10 Rookie of the Year on Wednesday.
After a scorching stretch in September and early October, when Smith fired home seven goals in six games, he quickly earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most prolific attackers, and teams adjusted accordingly.
Smith has only scored twice in his last six games—still a solid mark, but not the otherworldly form he saw in the middle of the season—as teams have started paying him extra attention, often dedicating one defender to him at all times, throwing multiple defenders his way and playing him physical all game.
As UMass (13-3-3, 6-1-1 A-10) prepares to face Fordham (12-4-2, 5-2-1 A-10), it will be key for the Minutemen to get their star striker back in form, something the Rams will be working hard to stop. When the two teams first met on Nov. 1, they were all over Smith, frustrating him enough throughout the contest that he was firing his cleats into the bench area after the final whistle, visibly agitated.
“It comes with the territory,” said coach Fran O’Leary, “He’s Rookie of the Year because he’s a very good player, and it comes with the territory as he develops his game. We’ve talked about it, you get better when you’re under stress, and when teams are double, triple-teaming you, you’re under stress. But you can be annoyed by it, or you can embrace it and become a better player. Davis has a terrific mentality, and I think he’ll meet the challenge.”
O’Leary has called Smith a “marked man” after seeing teams focus so heavily on him, but he isn’t concerned about his precocious frontman.
“Well he’s only gone two games without scoring,” O’Leary said. “At this level, you’re not going to score every game, and to have nine goals at this stage is a tremendous output for a freshman, so at least we’ll have the collective group create some chances, and his finishing has been very good, so we’ll just keep plugging away, keep creating chances, and if he’s in the right position we’ll find him. I’m sure he’ll have a major say in this tournament.”
Smith’s play on Friday will be crucial, but even if he doesn’t find himself on the scoresheet, O’Leary knows he can still affect the game just by sheer presence.
“Well the first thing he does nowadays is he attracts a lot of attention,” said O’Leary. “Teams, now, will place more than one player in his vicinity, and that creates space elsewhere. I always say space creates goals, and he takes up a lot of space, takes up the attention of more than one defender and therefore creates space for other players.
“Alex [DeSantis] has scored a lot of goals coming through the middle of the field thanks in large part to Davis, Jack [Fulton]’s contributed six goals as well. I think the fact that he garners so much attention creates opportunities for other players.”
Smith has undoubtedly been phenomenal this season. As teams have adjusted to his play, the only question remaining is how he will adjust in return, something that will be key as UMass chases its first A-10 tournament title since 2007.
Kickoff on Friday is scheduled for 4:30 p.m., as this season’s A-10 tournament takes place at Dayton, Ohio.
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.