Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

2023 UMass men’s soccer season preview: continuity is key

Minutemen start the season on Thursday against Northeastern
Shilpa Sweth
Daily Collegian (2022)

With uncertainty looming in the form of an almost entirely new lineup, Fran O’Leary coached his 2022 Massachusetts soccer team into one of the most difficult teams to beat in the Atlantic 10. Now, with the 2023 season about to begin and almost all contributors returning, O’Leary will have continuity on his side as he develops a young yet disciplined squad into a well-oiled machine.

“It’s terrific [to have that continuity],” O’Leary said. “Obviously having a lot of returning players from last fall allowed us put together a good team for the spring. We had a positive spring. And to have so many of them back, understanding the roles, knowing what’s expected of them, just having an increase maturity, helps any team and helps any coach. It’s a great group of guys we have and they’ve welcomed in the new young players and transfers. But you feel coming into the season we have a real foundation with returning players.”

The Minutemen went 2-1-5 in conference play last season and 7-4-7 overall, meaning they had less losses in the season than conference champions Saint Louis and tied for the least amount of conference losses with one. They also finished the season unbeaten at home. But while UMass was as hard to beat as anyone in the A-10, it also struggled to pick up wins –– which limited the team to eighth in the standings.

Picked to finish seventh for the second year in a row, consistency and more goals will be key for the Minutemen to improve upon the foundation set from last year. UMass’ setup and off-ball structure makes the team incredibly resilient and great at absorbing sustained pressure from opponents, meaning they’re able to grind out a result against more talented teams without having much possession of the ball.

“We’ve sort of had a consistency of approach in how we play for a number of years,” O’Leary said. “… Last season we finished I think joint-top in the A-10 in goals against so that’s our strength, we say our strength is our structure. We’re a very structured, disciplined team, and we’ll hope to carry that on next season.

“Obviously we’d like to score a few more goals. We’ve obviously got exciting players up front with Alec Hughes and Nick Zielonka returning, but we’ll want to turn some of our ties from last season into wins. So we’re looking for goals all throughout the team that will hopefully tip some of these ties into wins.”

Last year the Minutemen smashed the program record for the longest unbeaten run to start the season, going 12 games without a loss until losing away to ranked Vermont. The run included six ties; to flip some of those into wins more goals will be needed.

But to score more goals, as O’Leary said, they’ll have to get more players in and around the box –– a big point of emphasis for him this offseason. The trick is that being more aggressive also leaves space behind the midfield that opponents can exploit. It won’t be easy to score more without conceding more goals too.

However, the secret may not lie in being more aggressive to create chances, but in simply finishing more of the chances they already create without necessarily changing the play style.

“I feel when we evaluated the season, we created a lot of chances. In a lot of games we won’t have as much of the ball as our opponent but in many, many games we outshot [our opponents] and we created some really good chances. It’s just a combination of a little bit of luck and a little bit of confidence to finish off chances.”

Luckily for UMass, they have Hughes for that. One of the best strikers in the league and the A-10’s reigning Co-Offensive Player of the Year, Hughes was the only Minuteman named to the Preseason All-Conference team. The senior led the league in goals and points last season, with 10 and 22, respectively, and was named to the First-Team All-Conference.

But Hughes is far from the only returning contributor. The Minutemen are bringing back 12 of 16 players who played at least 400 minutes last season with only two consistent starters leaving the team. O’Leary will miss the presence of his captain, defender Nathaniel Cardoza, and of his leading assist-getter in midfielder Evan Fournier. Midfielders Shizu Yohena and Tommy Case are also significant departures.

In their place, senior Mike Willis and sophomores Matt Cence and Aaron O’Malley, all returning midfielders, may rack up more starts. Sophomore defender Alex Brown “established himself as the left back,” per O’Leary, replacing Cardoza. Aside from that change, last year’s stout backline remains the same.

“One of the benefits as we say of having so many returning players is there’s not the urgency to put players in the team maybe before they’re ready,” O’Leary said. “We have a mature returning group, and I think as the weeks ahead progress, you’re going to find the newcomers really sort of settling in, understanding what we’re about and starting to press the starters for minutes.”

If the returning starters from last year remain starters, the lineup would look something like Matt Zambetti in goal; Brad Moccio, Aidan Kelly, Matt Fordham and Brown at the back; Ryan Levay, Andrew Ortiz, Jack Englebert and a spot for the taking in midfield; and Hughes and Zielonka in attack.

That means O’Leary lost just two goal-scorers from last season and returned 25 out of 30 goals in terms of production, and he won’t need to replace much of the defense either. Such continuity leads to higher expectations.

“Well, I think the first goal is for us to finish in the top eight,” O’Leary said. “Second goal then is to see if we can finish in the top four and get home seats for the quarter final and then we will aspire and we have the ambition to win the league. So I think the goal is to get into the playoffs and keep our season alive while aspiring to win the league.”

A difficult schedule won’t make things simple. UMass opens the season on Thursday, August 24 at home against Northeastern. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m.

Other tough matchups include a ranked Providence squad, a Vermont team that was ranked last year, three Ivy League opponents, and some of the A-10’s best teams in Duquesne, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton.

“You can’t win the conference if you don’t finish in the top eight,” O’Leary stated. “We want to win the conference, so the first thing we’ve got to do is make sure we’re in [the playoffs]. After that then we just keep pushing on.”

Beginning the season like they did last year would be a good start.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *