Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Atlantic 10 preview: Defending champs UMass men’s soccer opens A-10 Saturday

Minutemen were regular season and tournament champs in 2017

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Atlantic 10 preview: Defending champs UMass men’s soccer opens A-10 Saturday

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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For the first time in a decade, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team has a title defense to launch.

Having won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships last year, the Minutemen (4-3-2) open conference play against St. Bonaventure (3-3-1) on Saturday.

“I think everyone’s really excited, because now we’re playing for points and our focus is completely on the conference. We’ve gone from bottom of the conference to the top,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary. “So we’ve got a proud tradition of doing well in the A-10.”

Despite being picked eighth in last season’s preseason poll, 2017 was a banner year for UMass, which finished atop the regular season table before downing Virginia Commonwealth in the final of the A-10 tournament to claim both of the year’s biggest trophies.

It’ll be a very tough run for a repeat for the Minutemen — picked third in this year’s preseason poll, behind No. 25 Fordham and VCU — who face one of the conference’s toughest schedules in 2018.

“One of the challenges we face is the quality of the opponents we play,” O’Leary said. “We finished first, and we’ve been given a schedule that sees us play the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and I think 11th or 12th place teams from last year, so we’ve got an incredibly tough schedule and that’s something we’re going to have to handle.”

Fordham and VCU will be the obvious contenders along with UMass, with Rhode Island and Saint Louis poised to make a run at the top tier.

“I think we’ll be a very competitive team, but it looks like the league this year is very strong,” O’Leary said. “Saint Louis has bounced back, they’ve had some terrific results, URI has added several top players and they’ll be there or thereabouts, obviously Fordham and VCU, they’ve all gotten better. The challenge for us now is to translate the work we’ve undertaken into the conference and see if that will get us results.”

Despite a tough non-conference schedule, the Minutemen enter conference play with a winning record, having beaten Central Connecticut State, Hartford, Bryant and Saint Peter’s over the first few weeks of the season. The lone blemishes all came against strong teams, falling to Dartmouth, Boston University and UMass Lowell — each among the best sides in their respective conferences — and holding draws against Sacred Heart and national powerhouse Clemson.

But none of those results matter much in the long run, as the games really start to count on Saturday.

“Time will tell, but we wanted some hard games, we’ve played well in some, I think we come away thinking we could have done better in others and now consistency is going to be the key,” O’Leary said. “Now we don’t get games back, you don’t get points back in the A-10 — you play, you either get three points, one point or no points and you can’t have that game back.

“What we have to do as quickly possible is acquire, we believe, in the range of 12-13 points. That will see us get back into the A-10 tournament four years in a row, which would be a tremendous accomplishment. Now we’re in the point collection business. We’ve got to find a way, between home games and road games, to amass 12-13 points.”

UMass continues to struggle with long absences from key players — forward Davis Smith will return from suspension this weekend, but All-Conference center back Konrad Gorich remains sidelined after an injury in the season opener. Samuel Asamoah, often paired with Smith up front in 2017, has also missed an extended run of games.

“Injuries are part of it,” O’Leary said. “Every team has a few key players, and we’ve obviously had games where we wish we had our key players and some experienced guys, but that’s life. So you just get on with it — you can’t control it, you can’t cry about it, you don’t get points for losing games missing your top players, you’ve got to win the game. Injuries are a part of what goes on, I’m sure we’re not the only team in the country with injuries, so we just get on with it.”

The non-conference slate is just about finished — Tuesday’s game against New Hampshire may still be rescheduled after a rainout — and just eight A-10 games stand between the Minutemen and some new additions to the trophy shelf in O’Leary’s office.

“I think there’s a hunger. Once you get trophies, there’s a hunger to go on and do it again,” O’Leary said. “Winning is a great habit, and it was a nice feeling, so what our guys know is that there’s a lot of work ahead. Really now, the St. Bonaventure game is so important for us, to start off the conference on the right foot is key.

“We did it last season, and if we can come out, get a good crowd behind us on Saturday and a good performance against a very strong St. Bonaventure team, we’ll pick up three points, at worst we’ll be joint-first Saturday night and we’ll try to stay there.”

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

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