Knights hope to ride momentum to AAC Finals
As antsy as the Rutgers men’s soccer team is after knocking off top-seeded Louisville last Saturday in the AAC Tournament quarterfinals, it knows its business is unfinished.
After all, the Scarlet Knights expected the upset. Despite going winless in its last six regular season games, Rutgers (7-10-2, 2-5-1) believed it just needed to shake off rust in the wake of senior forward Kene Eze returning from injury.
“I think going into this tournament we knew that with Kene back and with everyone healthy, we definitely had a chance at doing something special,” said sophomore midfielder Mael Corboz. “Now we have a chance at the semifinals, going to Dallas, which is great, but it means nothing unless we win the tournament and we go to the NCAA Tournament.”
A trip to the conference title game is on the line tonight in Frisco, Tex., against South Florida (7-3-8, 2-2-4), which the Knights dueled to a double-overtime draw Oct. 19 at Yurcak Field.
The winner advances to the AAC Championship on Sunday against either two-seeded Connecticut or three-seeded Central Florida.
The fifth-seeded Bulls outshot Rutgers, 19-13, in that game, and boast some of the fastest attackers in the conference. Midfielder Lindo Mfeka and forward Edwin Moalosi lead USF with 26 combined points.
Luckily for the Knights, the Bulls botched many open opportunities inside the box in their first meeting.
But now much more is at stake.
Riding an emotional high, Rutgers knows it must stay on course.
“I think that’s the biggest thing — making sure that no one’s really overconfident,” Corboz said. “Yeah, we knocked off the one seed, but we still have a huge task ahead if we want to win the tournament. … We’ve got to stay focused on Friday and beating USF before we think about anything else. We played them here and they were tough, so it’s not going to be easy.”
But there is more reason for optimism this time around.
Eze, who leads Rutgers with 20 points, played a full game for the first time in more than a month against USF. He did not get a shot off until overtime.
“When you come back, that doesn’t mean you’re 100 percent ready to go,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “It took him a couple games and some quality minutes to kind of get back into form. Nobody can miss as many games as he missed and come back in and not miss a beat.”
Eze regained his beat at the most crucial point in last Friday’s play-in game against Cincinnati. The Sayreville, N.J., native exploded for four goals, opening the floodgates for the rest of the offense.
After Eze’s first tally in the 49th minute, sophomore defender Drew Morgan found his first-career goal 14 minutes later. Then redshirt freshman defender Kiernan Kemmerer recorded his first-career assist in the 81st minute.
“Once I got the [first] goal, it boosted the confidence of the team,” Eze said. “We were just waiting for that one goal, and I think the game opens up when we’re scoring and it opens it up for other players on the team to get forward and create more opportunities.”
Rutgers must continue to ride Eze’s breakaway speed and finish the critical scoring chances it struggled with much of the season in his absence.
Having already shown they could persevere and flip a switch just in time against Cincinnati, the Knights are confident they will finish what they started against the Bulls.
“It shows a lot that we all came together in the end,” Eze said. “We were working hard in training. We knew we believed that if we played our game that we could play with anybody.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer ream, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.