The Massachusetts men’s soccer team will play in semifinal of the Atlantic 10 tournament on Friday for the first time since 2008, and the Minutemen will be taking on a familiar foe.
UMass (13-3-3, 6-1-1 A-10) is fresh off a quarterfinal win over Saint Louis, and now turns its attention to Fordham (12-4-2, 5-2-1 A-10), a team that, just last week, handed the Minutemen their only home loss of the season, their only conference loss of the season and their first defeat in over a month in a 3-2 win at Rudd Field.
In that loss, UMass suffered multiple defensive breakdowns from set pieces, and the Rams capitalized to score twice in the second half and put the game out of reach.
Sorting out the struggles on set pieces will be step number one for the Minutemen to gain the upper hand this time around.
“Well, we’ve got to defend our box better, that’s the first thing,” said coach Fran O’Leary. “In the first game we really struggled to defend set pieces to make the first contact, and it really cost us. So we’ve got to be hyper-focused when defending our own box to make sure those mistakes don’t happen.”
O’Leary knows what he’s up against in Fordham—the most successful program in the conference over the last few years, far and away the best defensive unit in the conference and a side that runs its offense through Janos Loebe, the defending A-10 Offensive Player of the Year, one of the best attacking players in the region.
Loebe was a real handful for the Minutemen in the first meeting between the two sides—he scored the Rams’ opening goal, a purely individual goal created out of nothing, and proceeded to create problems for the UMass defense for 90 minutes, pulling defenders out of position and skipping past them with relative ease.
“Well, he’s a terrific player,” O’Leary said, “but we’ve got to be better with our individual defending. We can’t give him too much space, because he can hurt us. He’s a very ball-dominant player so we sort of need to try and starve him of possession, if that’s possible, but he’s a terrific player.”
Bottom line: The Minutemen need to make adjustments to flip the previous result on its head, but there may be no one better to try and do so.
O’Leary was selected by his fellow coaches as the A-10 Coach of the Year on Wednesday, having taken a team picked eighth in the Preseason Poll to a regular season title, a top seed in the tournament and now the program’s first semifinal appearance in nearly a decade.
Regardless of Friday’s result, the Minutemen have overachieved already this season, and appear fairly loose heading into the biggest game of the season thus far.
“I don’t believe we’re nervous,” O’Leary said. “I think we were a little anxious in the quarterfinal because we wanted to get the monkey off our back and win a conference game, but we’re coming in having won the league, we’re in the final four, we were picked to finish eighth and we’re in the conference semifinal. We’re just coming down here to enjoy ourselves, to find a way to get a result.”
This year’s A-10 tournament is being held at Baujan Field on the University of Dayton campus. Friday’s kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m.
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.