Midfield duo providing a spark for UMass men’s soccer

Chandler O’Dwyer and Eli Cronin have been a stabilizing force in the midfield

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Midfield duo providing a spark for UMass men’s soccer

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

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The midfield has been the heart and soul of the Massachusetts men’s soccer team this season. The creativity, activity and technical ability coming from the middle has been the force that drives the squad offensively and defensively.

Junior midfielders Chandler O’Dwyer and Eli Cronin have propelled the Minutemen (3-1) to a fiery start to the season. The partnership between the two has shaped the way UMass attacks and defends, and as the Minutemen prepare to take on Central Connecticut State on Saturday, the midfield will be a focal point to securing a win.

“The two of them have been terrific,” coach Fran O’Leary said. “They’re competitive guys. They can handle it physically. The midfield is an unforgiving place for guys who can’t handle physical contact. They’re brave, they anticipate well, they’ve both got good brains, they’ve won a lot of individual battles in there for us, they combine well and it’s developed a good partnership because they’ve played consistently all season. It’s impossible to leave either of them and that’s how you develop partnerships… They are the engine running our team. They’re the heart and soul of our team in the middle.”

Last season, the Minutemen struggled in the middle. They couldn’t find consistent play out of any of the combinations they tried out and it made it very difficult for UMass to succeed on either end of the field. The lack of a strong midfield partnership was ultimately the Minutemen’s undoing by the time playoffs came around.

This season, UMass has found a stable force in the center. The two have been a terrific pair and they play off each other well.

“Playing with Eli, I think me and him balance each other perfectly,” O’Dwyer said. “He’s very quick, gets up to people quick and that’s perfect for me because a hole in my game is that I’m not as quick. Me and him work together perfectly. We have an understanding with each other. We don’t get angry with each other if we make a mistake, we’re in the same year, we have a good friendship off the field so it can only be beneficial [to the team].

“Other than that, it’s just, know our jobs. That’s the thing as well ― we both know what we need to do and we keep doing it. We know where to be and when to be there. We just keep moving.”

Cronin pointed to O’Dwyer’s focus on knowing his job for the early success.

“He’s probably one of the best people that we have on the team up in the air so he certainly wins a lot of balls in the air for us,” Cronin said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. Both me and him being two hard workers, we kind of glue together and it turns out it has a pretty good outcome.”

O’Dwyer plays a traditional midfield position, distributing and keeping possession, and he has been stellar at it. Playing such a key position in the middle isn’t an easy burden for a player thrust into his first full-time starting role, but O’Dwyer has taken it on and has succeeded through four games.

“I think it’s a trust thing between me and Eli,” O’Dwyer said. “I know he will get forward and that allows me to do the sweeping job, to be in front of the back four. And then if I need to, I can go up there with everyone else. In regards to last year, I don’t think we had a partnership [in the midfield]. There were no two people who knew their roles whereas me and Eli, we know what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing and if one of us makes a mistake, we back each other up every single time.”

Cronin plays a more defensive-minded midfield role. A defender prior to coming to UMass, Cronin takes his mentality with him in his role as a midfielder, and it has shown in the results, as the Minutemen have allowed just one goal in four games.

“I’ve been playing defense my whole life so I’ve always been a defensive-minded player,” Cronin said. “When we get counter-attacked on, I kind of switch into that defensive mode and I kind of think of myself as being that position, and it’s not always fun when the other team has a counter-attack, but I always try to work my way back and try to help the back four as much as possible.”

The Minutemen will play the second of their three-game road trip Saturday at 6 p.m. when they face CCSU.

Javier Melo can be reached by email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JMeloSports.