Massachusetts Daily Collegian

In-state rivalry up first for UMass men’s soccer Friday

Minutemen take on UMass Lowell at 7 p.m.

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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Here we go again.

The 2018 season starts with a tough test and a regional rivalry for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team, as the reigning Atlantic 10 champions head to UMass Lowell on Friday for the season opener.

The River Hawks, fresh off a similarly strong 2017 campaign, represent one of only two in-state games for the Minutemen this season, the other an early September trip to Boston University.

“It’ll be a bit of fun, it’ll be a friendly rivalry,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary. “It’s just two groups of college kids trying to win a game of soccer; no one’s going to get carried away in the first game of the season for both teams. One of us will come away with a result, we’ll study the game and get better and get prepared for our own conference schedule.”

UML finished 10-7-1 last season, going 5-2-0 in conference play with a stellar 7-1-1 record at home. Competing in the deep America East, the River Hawks were picked to top the table in the annual pre-season coaches poll, ahead of NCAA tournament qualifiers New Hampshire and Albany.

“(They’re) a very talented, experienced team,” O’Leary said. “They’re all comfortable on the ball, they’re well-coached, and they’ve been picked top of a conference with UNH and Albany, teams that are used to going to the NCAA tournament, and the coaches know the best teams in the league and they’ve voted UMass Lowell number one in preseason.

“That should tell you that we’re going to have our hands full.”

A pair of Croatian internationals command the spine of the team, as junior Ivan Blaskic, last season’s America East Defender of the Year handles the back line, while the reigning America East Midfielder of the Year, senior Jakov Basic, pulls the strings in the center of the pitch.

It’s the center of the pitch where uncertainty remains for O’Leary — seniors Alex DeSantis and Connor O’Dwyer were the fulcrum around which the rest of the team pivoted, and with the back four and the attacking duo mostly sorted, several Minutemen could compete for minutes through the middle.

O’Leary also has decisions to make between the posts, and wouldn’t name his starting keeper for the opener.

Despite the question marks, O’Leary was pleased with how pre-season preparations played out.

“Our guys have been terrific,” said O’Leary. “They came back in good shape, they’ve got good camaraderie, the returning players have helped the young lads settle in. We didn’t expect anything less, but the returning guys have really helped the new guys, and we’ve had a nice, settled, drama-free preseason, and now we’re just looking forward to playing a real game.”

All that’s left to settle is the first result of the fall.

“I think we want to come away from tomorrow knowing we put a group of guys on the field who are brave enough to play and compete, excited about the chance to compete, and we’ll find out from there,” O’Leary said. “We’ll pick the bones off it afterwards and look to get better. If we go into the game and we’re shy and we’re a little intimidated, we’ll never learn.

“I think they lost one of nine games at home last season, so it’s very difficult to go to UMass Lowell and get a result, but the important thing is that we go there with a brave mentality, we go there on the front foot, and we look to give our best. If we want the ball, we’re not intimidated, and we look to impose ourselves on the game — we may not be right tactically, we may have gaps because it’s early in the season, but I think once we know we’re moving in the direction of having a hardened and competitive group, we’ll come away feeling good.”

Friday’s kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Cushing Field in Lowell.

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

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