By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Drew Staedeli. Cy McNeill. Kevin Miller. Some of the recent graduated names to grace the Salisbury University men’s soccer’s defense over the last few seasons.
Beyond those names and the recent seasons, Salisbury has a strong tradition of stout defensive backlines and goalkeepers. In the last 10 seasons, nine have ended with Salisbury giving up less than a goal-per-game. Most of those nine were goals-against-averages in the 0.5 to 0.7 range.
This same proud defensive tradition continued into 2017. Ideally, a strong defense leads to a stronger offense, but this was just not the case.
In Salisbury’s first five matches this season, the Sea Gulls only gave up four goals while scoring just once. On Sept. 13 after their match against Washington College, a 3-2 overtime loss, SU head coach Alex Hargrove decided to change to tweak things.
“Ultimately we weren’t getting the production we needed offensively, so we made a few changes,” Hargrove said.
The team decided to completely alter their tactical formation from recent years into a 3-6-1, moving from their classic four-man backline to a three-man back line. It was a big difference at first for many of the defensive players on the squad.
It was a perfect time for Salisbury to try out something new considering their depth and reliability at the back. The goal of the new defensive shape was to get an extra attacking midfielder up field in order to spark the offense.
“You go back to the Salisbury of the early to mid-2000’s and even through my era playing, there was always a bit of depth that we played with, whether you call it a back-four or a back-three, it was usually a back-three. This is just Salisbury soccer 101 again,” Hargrove said.
“We’ve got some players who fill those roles really well with their playing identities.”
So far, so good
On Sept. 16, it was Salisbury’s first time back home since opening weekend, as they welcomed in the Misericordia Cougars, who were having scoring issues of their own. A gritty back and forth game in the first half blended into a Salisbury offensive onslaught in the second half. Sophomore midfielder Dolph Hegewisch tallied the first two goals and then from there SU took care of business 4-0 at home.
Since then, the Sea Gulls went on a four-match win streak including two shutouts, 12 goals scored and only two goals allowed. The offense was clicking unlike what they say in their first few matches of the season.
“It was different, but I think it fit well really for us, more so because it allowed, especially the outside backs like Alex [Eiben] and I, to be more defensive-minded and to not have to worry as much about attacking,” senior defender Nick Carrington said.
“So it really helped us to solidify the back. It has shown in the last couple of games.”
Despite a road loss to Mary Washington 2-1 on a late penalty kick, the team seems rejuvenated headed into Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) play.
“Now we look back on the past few games and we’re looking at over 10 goals in that haul. Even in that loss to Washington, there were positives coming out of it from the changes we made. So I think we’re comfortable with the balance we created, and the players are getting into more dangerous areas,” Hargrove said.
To make this offensive surge occur, the defensive players needed to make adjustments into a new strategy. In front of junior goalkeeper Trevor Brookhart, fans will find Carrington and sophomore defender Alex Eiben on the edges of the three-man back line.
Named a captain in 2017, Carrington has stepped into a leadership role in 2017, emerging as a starter for Hargrove at a wing back spot last season. Now with 24 career starts under his belt, the now-left center back has had a smooth change to the new position.
“It was nice. It was a little like, it took me a few practices to get there mentally, but it was nice to solely focus on defending to really help solidify and stop letting goals in to start winning some games,” Carrington said.
Following in his brother’s footsteps, Eiben has solidified himself as a key player for Hargrove, displayed versatility to play both as a defensive midfielder and now as a right center back. After making only one appearance in his freshman campaign, Eiben has started in all matches this season, giving him time on the field for his game-winning overtime goal vs. Catholic.
“The first game that we started with this new formation I was a little shaky. But in these practices and last few games I think it’s gone really well working back there with Michael [Kramer] and Nick,” Eiben said.
The Jefferson, Md.-native is a perfect example of sticking to your craft, working hard and capturing your opportunity. After depth blocked his chances for playing time during his freshman year, 2017 offered a chance to shine.
“He’s taken his opportunity and run with it. He took the off-season and worked on a few things we asked him to. His recovery speed out there is fantastic and his distribution is miles away from where it was last year,” Hargrove said.
In the defensive midfield, two midfielders hold there to support the backline with junior Robbie Budd and senior Colby Fell. After only seeing appearances in previous games this season, Budd has started in the last two matches for Salisbury.
A regular at center back in 2016 with 13 starts, Fell has found a new role on the team in the defensive midfielder spot. Starting in the last 10 games this season, the former CCBC Essex defender does not see a huge change in his role, just playing like a center back further up the field.
“It’s a lot of fun. I get to hit the ball a little bit more. It’s really nice having [those three] behind me because they have very good vocalization while keeping me in check and not getting too far ahead,” Fell said.
To his head coach, Fell has proven himself to survey the field very well. Hargrove notes potential head coach characteristics in his defensive midfielder.
“Colby is probably one of our more intelligent players. His ability to communicate and organize both in-possession and out-of-possession is top-notch,” Hargrove said.
With such an intricate design and chemistry at the back, one player has to call the shots and possess the vision to do so.
Coming out of a three-man goalkeeper competition this preseason, Brookhart has earned his starting spot in the matches this season. The junior goalkeeper played one season with Fell at CCBC Essex before transferring over to NCAA Division III Salisbury.
In his 11 starts this season, Brookhart has allowed just 11 goals with a 0.95 goals-against-average and a 77.1 save percentage. In most sports, the goalkeeper receives most of the credit for the defensive success. While Brookhart is deserving of praise with his multi-save performances, the 2017 defensive effort is a reflection of the entire defense.
That is a defense with one man in the middle: senior center back and team captain Mike Kramer.
“He’s got the best vision on the field. He’s knows what to do and where to place us. He’s making my job and everyone else’s job a lot easier with his leadership out of the back,” Carrington said.
The transition to a three-man backline was eased by the presence of the surveyor Kramer who has been a starting center back across his SU career from DiBartolo to now Hargrove. With 47 career starts and 58 appearances in his arsenal, Kramer has had the opportunity to learn in real-time and gain the experience to continue to lead the Salisbury defense.
A disciplined defender, Kramer has only one yellow card during his four-year tenure at Salisbury, acting as a central starter in the last three seasons. His four-year career is a reminder that the Salisbury defense is not a question mark for the Sea Gulls.
The chemistry among the defensive unit is something that keeps the success coming as Salisbury looks to tame each striker they face during the rest of the season. Fell, Kramer and Carrington were three of the four-player backline in 2016. Add consistent midfielder Budd and Fell’s former junior college teammate to the mix and there is a cohesive defensive unit playing in the Sea Gull Soccer Stadium.
Now with Eiben as a consistent piece in the starting 11 too, the offense can focus on developing their chemistry and tactics to score while the backline group puts out the fires.
“I think it’s just grit really, trying to make sure we keep the clean sheets. We really have to give it the 100 percent. We can’t give up 80 percent of the way, just finish out games and make sure we’re all together as one unit,” Carrington said.
The relationship of strong defense leading to offense is one the Sea Gulls hope to utilize for the rest of 2017 and beyond. While fans look out onto the field and see a new backline shape, it is the same core defensive strength that SU has embraced.
“I feel like our defense is getting stronger,” Eiben said.