Intensity and large freshman class prepare men’s soccer for opening weekend
The team bustles with fresh faces as the newest iteration of the Washington University men’s soccer team sweats through its preseason workouts in the sweltering St. Louis heat. With one of their largest freshmen classes in years, the Bears are primed to get back on top after a 7-7-2 season last fall.
“I’ve noticed a higher intensity this year,” said senior Connor Mathes, the team’s goalkeeper. He pointed to the team’s enormous freshman class—16 players, for a team that has just 10 upperclassmen total—as a source of vitality for the team. “It’s been really beneficial to have a lot of the high-energy guys who want to come in and prove themselves right away and challenge those older guys for a top spot.”
Last season’s stars have graduated and the team will now have look to those younger players to step up and carry their weight this fall. Without Ryan Sproule, Marc VandenBerg and Kyle Perez, three of the Bears’ top four scorers last year, the team turns to a committee to replace its offensive cornerstones. Losing those players initially created a void when the team was planning for this fall, but the team has been able to shift its style slightly to play to its strengths. Mathes and head coach Joe Clarke both mentioned putting pressure on opponents through a high press and transitioning quickly to take advantage of strong defense and create scoring opportunities.
Not only were players like 6’ 3” Sproule and 6’ 1” Perez prolific scorers, they were also essential to the Wash. U. aerial game. This year’s team will increasingly focus on creating situations where its smaller players can succeed, Clarke said.
“Those guys are going to compete and they’re going to do well. We’re going to put them in positions where they’ll be able to do those things. Maybe sometimes we have everybody back in order to make it crowded. Maybe sometimes four guys stay up and teams have to adjust to that and we run counters,” Clarke said, observing that many shorter players are already deceptively athletic and good in the air. He also mentioned sophomore Alistair Shaw, who missed much of last year due to injury, as a header star.
The team’s schedule, which last year was ranked the hardest in all of Division III, will make the season an uphill battle for the Bears. They face no. 4 Rochester, Emory, NYU and Brandeis all in a two-week stretch of October and finish off the season with a crucial match at no. 3 Chicago. Clarke viewed the tough schedule in a positive light.
“I know we all want to go to the [NCAA] tournament, but I want to play the best teams we can, so that when we get to the tournament, if we’re there we’re really legitimately there and we are a team that can make a challenge,” he said. “If we’re not good enough to [beat good teams] in the regular season, then getting to the tournament would be great, but we’re not going to do anything. I want to do something. I want to win championships.”
Clarke emphasized that last fall’s team was better than its final record reflected and that this year expectations are high. “It was really a very good team last year and it just didn’t get a couple of results,” he said. “It was the same two years ago but I think last year’s team was better, and I think that this year’s team will be better than last year’s team.”
The Bears kick off the season with a trip to Minnesota this weekend. Tomorrow, they face no. 11 St. Thomas before taking on Macalester on Sunday. The team’s first home game comes next Friday, a sunset showdown on Francis Field against Pacific Lutheran.
Excitement and anticipation fill the air. “I think they’ll be fun to watch,” Clarke said. “They’ll be really competitive and fun to watch.”