By Chris Mackowiak
Following a tough non-conference slate, the Salisbury University men’s soccer team welcomes in Southern Virginia for their first Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) match of the 2016 season this Saturday at 2pm.
While the Sea Gulls (3-2-1) have been very strong to this point, there are still many questions out there for the team to face. Southern Virginia (2-5) on paper looks like an easy team for Salisbury to defeat, but their tough grit does not show up in the stat sheet.
Salisbury University (3-2-1)
After a great start to the season offensively with 11 goals through their first four matches, the Sea Gulls face a dilemma as their offensive production has plateaued. Following their 3-0-1 start to the season, Salisbury has dropped their last two both on the road (2-1 in OT at Neumann, 1-0 at Eastern).
The true problem in these matches may not be the offensive play, but the finishing instead. In most games this season, Salisbury has led their opponents in both shots and shots on goal, but the team can’t seem to finish many of those opportunities.
One major problem for Salisbury was the loss of their star senior forward Leslie Umunna, who is tied for the team lead with 3 goals this year, for two recent games (home vs. Washington College, away at Neumann). A year ago, Umunna led the Sea Gulls with 7 goals.
It is not Umunna’s offensive production that spells his importance to the team. It is instead what he does as part of their typical 4-1-4-1 formation. He is at the ‘number 9’ spot at the top of the formation, so Umunna dictates the offense. The responsibility of the number 9 position is to hold up the ball as a target and jockey with the big opposing defenders. By holding up the ball, Salisbury’s wingers and central attackers can move up the field to find space to work in tandem with Umunna.
Last year, the Sea Gulls had legendary forward Matt Greene who sparked nearly all the offensive success his first few years. With Greene and Umunna able to play up top well, it wasn’t a huge certain if one was out of the lineup up top. With Greene having graduated, Head Coach Alex Hargrove is still in search of the guy to be the second tier player up top in case Umunna goes down. Luckily, it will not be a worry on Saturday because Umunna will officially be back and most likely starting.
“We’ve played a couple different guys across that front line. We’ve had some guys that have gone up there and given us some good minutes. We ask them to go in and give everything they’ve got and be as productive as they can,” Coach Hargrove said.
“We’re looking forward to having [Umunna] back to play close to a full 90 [minutes] on Saturday and being healthy the rest of the season.”
Towards the end of last year, former Head Coach and present SU Athletic Director Gerry DiBartolo played now sophomore defender Josh Lord up top as a sub into Umunna’s position. One big benefit came his way with a deflection goal in the 2015 CAC Championship Game. With his defensive knowledge, Lord was able to have success tracking the ball up top. In recent practices, Lord has seen more time training in the spot up top as he shows more and more physicality.
The argument can be made to try junior forward Brooks Zentgraf up top, but he is much better with quick speed as a winger outside. Freshman midfielder Dolph Hegewisch has been an excellent catalyst for the offense with his passing ability at a sort of ‘number 10’ spot as the center attacking midfielder when he is in the game. Look out for both to draw attention from the SVU defense this Saturday.
On defense, Salisbury has been nearly spotless. Despite the two losses, the Sea Gulls have only given up four goals overall. Their goals against average of 0.64 is nearly even with the team’s in 2015 of 0.62 which was first in the conference.
Their tactics of clogging the midfield so that opposing offenses must move the ball out wide has worked well. However, for teams that work better on the outside, they have punished the Sea Gulls.
The lone goal, early in the match, by Eastern came on a breakaway down the right side. A cross was sent in towards the back post. A Salisbury defender and senior goalkeeper Robert Fiackos missed their coverage, and the ball fell right to the Eastern player running towards the back post to slot it in.
“The mistakes with that goal started 30 seconds before with some poor decisions in possession. There were numerous players who made some poor decisions that allowed a guy to be open at the back post. That’s never a mistake on a goal keeper, but it’s the collection of 11 guys who didn’t do their job in possession and out of it that led to [the goal],” Coach Hargrove said.
“Any game where you only give up one shot on goal and you lose 1-0 is a bit unfortunate. That’s the game of soccer, but we hope to have some of that luck swing our way in the next couple matches.”
The only inconsistency on the defense is at goalkeeper, where injuries and competition have caused a turnstile affect with both seniors Fiackos and Louisville-transfer Dan Brennan both sharing time in net. During Thursday’s practice, Fiackos and Brennan both worked to the side during action after taking on knocks over the course of the last few games.
Brennan has been nursing an injury for the last few matches despite playing backup during Wednesday’s match vs. Eastern. Fiackos went down and had to leave the game in the 17th minute which forced Brennan to enter. The senior transfer played well, but he did not take any free kicks nor goal kicks with the duties being passed on to members of the backline.
Coach Hargrove calls it a “Friday or Saturday decision” for the starting goalkeeping for the match. The team will definitely need to see how the two seniors progress during Friday’s practice into Saturday’s warmups. If Brennan and Fiackos both can’t go, waiting in the ranks could be freshman Samuel Roy who took the reps during practice on Thursday.
The team is built on excellent and experienced defense. The question is will the offense score enough each game to grab wins.
Southern Virginia University (2-5)
While looking at SVU’s past offensive struggles, Salisbury should not be complaining. After scoring only a total of six goals during all of the 2015 season, SVU has already topped their win total of 1 from a year ago alongside five goals to start this season.
After starting the season 2-2, SVU has dropped their last three while also being shutout in each of the matches. Across the three game span, the team has given up 10 goals to their opponents.
“Their score lines aren’t a great representation of their quality. [Coach Patino] there has done a great job. They’re very organized. They can be difficult to break down. It’s going to take a good collective effort and some individual quality to take them down,” Coach Hargrove said.
Most recently, the team fell at Roanoke College 4-0 on Wednesday Night. While the match featured a tough midfield battle and a lot of competition, problems covering set pieces and crosses marked doom for the Knights.
Notably, Southern Virginia could not mark attackers well defensively. Missed assignments in the man-to-man defense were apparent inside the box. A goalkeeping mistake also led to an open goal shot early in the affair. Just like Salisbury’s game vs. Eastern though, another defender should have that open player marked on the opposite side of the box.
The man-to-man defensive issues could bring an old favorite back for the Sea Gulls: defender Nathaniel Eiben on set pieces.
“It’s very likely you might see Nate Eiben playing in a slightly different position higher up the field, where he gave us some good minutes up there this Wednesday. He’s a guy that has a nose for goal. He’s hungry for it, and he showed that on Wednesday, creating a few chances. I look forward to more of that Saturday,” Coach Hargrove said.
Eiben was highly effective on the offensive side of the ball towards the end of last season. The veteran defender finished third among the Sea Gulls in goals with four, most of which came on set pieces where Eiben could use his head and physicality to get the ball in the back of the net.
The big question for SVU and Head Coach Josh Patino, in his third season, will be if they can hamper the Salisbury offense enough to make a gritty game that could come down to a final goal in overtime. If things don’t go the way of the Knights early, it could be a whole lot of Umunna battering around the defenders similar to what he did in Salisbury’s opening 8-0 win over Wilson College to start the year.
Look for SVU to play conservatively with compact defense to force Salisbury to hold possession and be creative. All day Southern Virginia will be looking for a scrappy goal on a transition attack to catch the Salisbury veteran defense off-guard.
At the end of the day, SVU just wants to end their goalless stride and gain some momentum headed into further CAC play in order to try and make a conference playoff spot. Any result similar to last season’s 4-0 Sea Gull victory in Buena Vista, VA would clearly not be ideal.