UMass men’s soccer still facing a lot of question marks entering A-10 play

The Minutemen have struggled with finishing issues

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UMass men’s soccer still facing a lot of question marks entering A-10 play

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

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It’s Atlantic 10 time for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team, and as they head into conference play, the Minutemen still have some things they need to figure out.

The finishing for UMass (4-4-0) has been inconsistent all season. Ahead of Saturday’s matchup against Dayton (4-4-0), the Minutemen have been outscored 4-1 in their last three games and scored just once on 30 shots in that span.

“Our focus this week and next week will be on finishing,” coach Fran O’Leary said. “Right now, we’re looking quite solid defensively. If we can improve our finishing, and that’s a big if ― it’s not easy ― the hardest thing to do in soccer is score a goal. But if we can improve our finishing, we’ll have a very competitive season.”

The finishing woes aren’t because of a lack of trying. The Minutemen are producing many opportunities in front of goal, they are just having difficulties executing on those opportunities.

“We’re creating,” O’Leary said. “Against BC we created 14 or 15 shots, so we’re creating chances. We now have to improve our finishing. Right now, we’re creating chances on par with, you look at the BC game; they played Pitt and NC State. We created a lot more shots than NC State, one less shot than Pitt. So we’re creating chances, we’re just not taking them.”

UMass has struggled to find a reliable scorer this season. Last season’s team had the likes of DeAndrae Brown and Jack Fulton who they could rely on to finish well in the final third. In the successful 2017 season, the Minutemen could depend on Davis Smith in key scoring opportunities.

This season has been a different story and it isn’t due to a lack of quality.

“To be fair to our guys, we graduated our entire back four,” O’Leary said. “There’s been hyper-focus in all of our practice sessions on, first of all, becoming competitive. If you look at last season, we had two guys, Eli and Yosuke, who were the only two that were regular starters returning. We know Eli’s out and Yosuke is out. So we first of all had to see could we, with all these young guys, be a competitive team or would we take a bad beating.

“We spent our entire time working on defending. Now that we have our confidence level that we can be competitive. Five goals [allowed] in eight games is an excellent credit to the team. To be fair to our guys, we haven’t spent the amount of time on attacking. We’re going to spend more time working on improving the creative side of things.”

Compounding the problem, UMass has had issues with injuries all season. The injury bug has plagued the Minutemen since they lost Yosuke Hanya in the preseason, a player O’Leary believed could have been the A-10 Player of the Year.

The midfield suffered even more when Eric Eberl, the player who was tasked with taking Hanya’s position, went down with an injury, and now UMass is also without defensive-minded midfielder Eli Cronin.

O’Leary has turned to defensive-minded freshmen such as Logan Brown, Benjamin Wiemann and Evan Fournier. Those players have fared well in holding their own in the middle, but the Minutemen are about to embark on a run of games that not only matter, but are also physically demanding.

“I think they’ll be fine,” O’Leary said. “They’ve been great so far. We’d like to get some of our injured guys back but injuries are a fact of life. You don’t get points or goals for starting games with injured players. It’s a fact of life, you just have to deal with it. Our young guys have got some experience in the non-conference schedule and the games will be a little more physical but I have confidence in our guys.”

The Minutemen kick off their conference run Saturday at 7 p.m. against Dayton.

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