Men's Soccer Program Looks To Right Ship
By Matt McCue
Trove Sports Reporter
Turning around a sports program is not typically done overnight and requires the efforts and hard work of all concerned. For the senior-laden Seton Hall soccer program, the expectation is that this is the year that hard work begins to bear fruit.
"This is the season where the players really want to start changing the dynamics of our program and get it back to where it once was," Head Coach Gerson Echeverry said of a squad that returns nine starters and 21 letter-winners.
Echeverry believes that 2014 is an important year, for the seniors in particular, to reverse the struggles of the program that has seen the team win no more than three league games since going 7-4 in 2006.
"I just think this is a period that is extremely important. Manny invested a lot in this senior class and I think they have something to prove, not only to everyone in and out of the program but to themselves as well," Echeverry said, referring to his predecessor Manfred Schellscheidt, who retired in 2011 after 24 years at the helm of the program that included three straight NCAA Tournament appearance from 2003 to 2005, when Echeverry was an assistant coach.
This year's team is led by Senior Co-Captains Mateusz Brela and Bolu Akinyode, who Echeverry called the "heart of our team."
Brela, a center back, has served as a team captain and started every game the past two seasons, while Akinyode, a midfielder, started 17 games last season, scoring one goal and adding two assists.
Also expected to lead the team in 2014 are Senior Konrad Plewa, who can play multiple positions and is a "creative player" with "fantastic knowledge of the game," according to Echeverry, and Senior Victor Manosalvas, an offensive midfielder who led last year's squad with five assists and was recently named the player of the year in the National Premier Soccer League as a member of the New York Red Bulls Under-23 team.
The midfield is particularly important for the squad as Echeverry noted that is where the offense is generated. "We want to control the match and the midfielders are a big part of dictating the game."
Sophomore Samuel Gieler led the Pirates in goals (8) and points (20) last season.
Having leading scorer and Preseason All-Big East sophomore midfielder Samuel Geiler will certainly help in that regard. Geiler led the Pirates in scoring during his freshman season with eight goals and four assists while starting all 18 games at midfield.
Echeverry said he has also moved Senior Kai Greene, who spent last year at outside back and outside mid, to the forward position this year to utilize his ability to beat defenders off the dribble and capitalize on his speed to get behind the opposition, which was an aspect the team was lacking last year.
"We are hoping that these guys can help carry us through their experience," he said, adding that the team also has some freshmen that are pushing for starting roles.
The freshmen group is led by Lucas Pangonis from Lithuania, an attacking defender who can play the midfield and was on the Under-20 Lithuanian national team. "Right now he is trying to find his feet. I think he is going to be a player that will help us and fight for a starting spot."
Also expected to push for playing time this year is New Jersey native Patrick Burd, who has mostly played central midfield during the preseason. "He is a very technical player who can play anywhere."
In the backfield, freshmen Nick Najera and John Philbin are expected to provide depth, particularly with Brela out for the first game due to a red card he received at the end of last season.
"We have a very good, a solid group of guys who are fighting to get a starting spot and we have some seniors who don't want to relinquish their roles. It will be difficult to pick a starting 11 right off the bat."
Echeverry said the key for the team is who is going to step up and score goals, as graduated seniors George Velasquez and Max Garcia contributed a total of eleven last year. "That is a lot of goals that have to be replaced for a team that doesn't put the ball in the back of the net a lot," the Seton Hall coach offered.
"Obviously everyone would love to have that guy that could score 15 to 20 goals…but you also want multiple players to contribute," Echeverry said of the need to have a varied attack. "We are hoping there is a little more balanced scoring and also scoring from set plays. That is an important aspect that we need to work on."
Defensively, Echeverry noted the team gave up some "silly goals" last year and believes the experience of the backfield should help this season now that Brela, Junior Julian Kennedy, Senior Jason Wellington and Sophomore Shawn Morrison have had an opportunity to play together.
Echeverry believes the team's offensive style of play will at times lead to goals allowed on counterattacks, something he accepts if minimized. "We just need to be careful not to give up silly goals."
The team's season opener will take place on the road against the University of Rhode Island. "I think right off the bat we are challenging ourselves to see exactly where we are going to be."
Speaking before the preseason polls were released on Aug. 19, Echeverry thought that Georgetown would be the likely consensus pick as the top team in the conference and programs like Marquette, Creighton and St John's would also be expected to contend. That belief played out in the polls, as Georgetown, with five first place votes, was picked as the favorite heading into the season, closely followed by Marquette with four first place votes. Creighton, in the third spot, also picked up a first place vote, with St. John's landing in fourth place.
For the Pirates, Echeverry expected the preseason poll to show Seton Hall toward the bottom of the league?the Pirates were ranked 9th out of 10 teams?which based on last year's record he feels is understandable.
"We had too many opportunities last season that we missed," Echeverry said. "We have to be able to win more games in order to prove to ourselves that we are better than our record indicated."
Top to bottom, Echeverry believes the conference will pose a strong challenge for the Pirates in each game. A challenge his team anticipates will be met.
"Soccer wise, this is a very balanced league. The BIG EAST is a talented and competitive group of teams where anyone can beat anyone. We hope and believe that will include us."