Goal drought magnifies year of adjustments
Rutgers men's head soccer coach Dan Donigan will be the first to tell you his team has a problem.
The Scarlet Knights have not scored a goal since Sept. 19 and have since suffered four straight losses, the most recent of which came Tuesday night in a 1-0 defeat at the hands of NJIT.
"We're not creating enough chances. The shots that we do get, we aren't doing enough with," said Donigan of his 3-5-1 team. "Either we aren't striking it the right way or we aren't making the right decisions in the final third. That's an obvious problem."
Three of the past four games have come on the road after Rutgers enjoyed a five-game homestand, in which the Knights went 3-1-1. The team is still both winless and goalless on the road.
Donigan does not believe being away from home is the issue.
"It's a different venue, but these guys have played at most of these venues before," he said. "Soccer players adjust to the weather, the facility, the conditions and the opponent. So those are just excuses in my opinion."
Excuses are one thing, but when injuries strike, a team's chemistry and chances for success are extremely hampered. The Knights have missed the likes of seniors Chris Edwards and Yannick Salmon, as well as junior Sam Archer for at least one game apiece due to injuries.
With players constantly switching in and out of games, it is hard for a team to find a rhythm.
"We've had some changes in personnel, so it's hard to find continuity with players," Donigan said. "It's just the fact that we're a little banged up and that shifting guys and pulling guys away could potentially lead to some problems.
"But at the same time, good players on good teams can adjust in those situations and we haven't done a good job adjusting. At the end of the day, it's our own fault."
Salmon, a midfielder and one of the team's three captains, injured his ankle against Marquette and missed the game against Temple while slowly recovering.
He now feels close to 100 percent and is good to go against Louisville.
"I've been playing at around 70 or 80 percent the past couple games," the Westbury, N.Y., native said. "Against Cincinnati [last Saturday] I had to come off after about 30 minutes. [Tuesday] I was able to play the entire game, but I think by Saturday I will be at 100 percent."
The Knights need a healthy Salmon — the team's leading scorer — back to his scoring ways when they host No. 3 Louisville on Saturday night at Yurcak Field.
The Cardinals enter the matchup with a 7-0-2 record and boast one of the conference's premier scorers in reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Week Dylan Mares. The freshman leads the team in goals with five.
"We aren't concerned about just one guy on Louisville's team. We are concerned about Louisville," Donigan said. "I'll be honest, when I was out in St. Louis we recruited Dylan a little bit. I know him and I know that they have a number of kids that can hurt you. So if we try to key in on one guy, the next guy is going to hurt us."
And while the offense tries to find its rhythm, the defense knows that it has its hands full with the Cardinals attack.
"Basically what we want to try and do is limit their chances as much as possible. We want to stay compact on defense and make sure that as defenders we are following their runners," said senior captain and outside defender Paulie Calafiore. "We don't want them to have any room to breathe so we can force turnovers and open our game up and play from the back."
Clicking on all cylinders is tough to do on a team adjusting to a whole new coaching staff and an entirely new system of play.
Donigan understands that the transition is tough on his players and it is one of the contributors to the offense's struggles.
"You don't fix [these problems] overnight. It takes time," said Donigan, who spent the past nine years as head coach at St. Louis. "It's an adjustment period. It's been difficult for the players and it's been difficult for us. But this is a transition and this is the first season we've had.
"To be honest with you, it's been a lot more difficult than we anticipated. Having said that, we still have seven games left and they are all Big East games. There are still 21 points out there and we are forgetting about the game [Tuesday]. We've got to move on."
The first three of the 21 points left are on the table Saturday night against the Cardinals. A win could go a long way toward solving the problem, but the Knights need to come ready to battle.
"They are a beatable team whether they are ranked or not. We have the pieces to compete with them. We just have to bring our ‘A' game," Calafiore said. "Obviously coming off of four straight losses, we are just starting to get sick of losing, which is a good thing. [Louisville] is coming in and we have to give them everything we've got. Otherwise we are going to get embarrassed."
But if Louisville approaches Saturday how Rutgers approached NJIT, there might be a different team leaving Yurcak Field in embarrassment.
"They are going to come in not really expecting much. They are going to look at our record and expect to beat us 3- or 4-0," Salmon said. "They are looking at us how we looked at some other teams this season — some teams that came out and beat us. Last year we gave them a good fight and two years ago we beat them at home. We know that it's a great opportunity. A win like this can completely turn your season around."