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

Alec Hughes nets two in UMass men’s soccer’s season opener

Ruthless in front of goal, Minuteman striker causes havoc for Northeastern’s defense
Kayla Wong
Daily Collegian (2023)

After leading the Atlantic 10 in goals and winning the conference’s Co-Player of the Year in 2022, Massachusetts men’s soccer star Alec Hughes scored twice in the season opener against Northeastern, securing a 2-2 draw at home on Thursday.

Both of his goals gave the Minutemen (0-0-1) leads in the contest, but the Huskies (0-0-1) tied it both times with two goals from corner kicks. Despite the team’s set piece defense letting him down, Hughes looks more dangerous than ever in his senior season and showed he can carry UMass’ attack.

“[Hughes is] a very good player,” head coach Fran O’Leary said. “He’s fast, he’s brave, he’s aggressive. He’s matured greatly since he first came here as a young guy. He had a lot of the physical tools; he’s added the mental tools. He takes a lot of abuse because he is a focal point of our attack, and he handles it. I thought it was his best game as a college player tonight. I thought he was superb.”

“I think he’ll be one of the best in the country,” he added.

Throughout the game, the Minutemen made it clear their strategy relies heavily on getting the ball to Hughes on the counterattack. As O’Leary has previously mentioned, UMass doesn’t need to have much possession of the ball to create dangerous scoring chances, and that was on full display Thursday.

Northeastern held the ball more often but couldn’t create good opportunities against O’Leary’s well-structured defense. When the Minutemen got it back, they immediately turned to verticality and pushed it down the field with long balls and through-balls towards Hughes.

Most times it didn’t turn into anything and the Huskies recovered possession, but on the four or five times that the ball made it through it instantly turned into a high-quality chance.

The first of these chances came from grad midfielder Ryan Levay in the 25th minute. With the ball in no man’s land and a Husky running to claim it, Levay extended his leg to get there first while simultaneously sending a perfectly weighed through-ball for Hughes. The striker calmly dispatched it to take the lead.

With the game tied at 1-1 in the 54th minute, another moment of brilliance took place for the UMass attack. Nick Zielonka had it on the right wing when he saw Hughes making a run towards the center of the box. Zielonka sent a beautiful cross that took Northeastern’s backline out of the play and landed right at Hughes’ feet, who took it first-time.

“[Hughes’] pace allows him to gain separation from defenders and he’s also an accomplished finisher,” O’Leary said. “So he likes to go long, and he has the pace to do it.”

Hughes’ profile is perfect for how UMass want to play. He’s 6-foot-4, fast and strong. Opponents can’t knock him off the ball, he has a reliable first touch, can hold up play if necessary and is a great finisher. That means he has the height and strength to be an easy target for long passes, the touch to control such passes when they reach him, and the speed to beat defenders in space with the ball at his feet. When he clears that last line and it’s just him against the keeper, it’s almost a guaranteed goal.

Towards the end of the first half, Hughes had multiple chances to complete a hat trick and win the game for the hosts. He had another goal disallowed for offside, a header that hit the crossbar and an attempt stopped by Huskies keeper Gregor Shaw. If one thing is already clear after just the first game of the season, it’s that Hughes will be a handful for defenders every minute he’s on the pitch.

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

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