RU makes most of injury-riddled year
As stunned members of the Rutgers men’s soccer team reluctantly inched off the Toyota Stadium turf in Frisco, Tex., last Friday night, it was not because they had something left to prove.
Following what senior forward Kene Eze called a “heartbreaking” double-overtime to South Florida in the semifinals of the AAC Tournament, the Scarlet Knights gave everything they had.
“We knew that we battled,” Eze said. “Coming in, [we knew] it was going to be one of the toughest games. We played our hearts out, taking them into double overtime. So basically with our effort, we were obviously disappointed, but we knew we did what we could.”
Rutgers (7-11-2, 2-5-1) largely made the most of a trying season that saw the loss of Eze, its co-leading scorer, for nearly all of an eight-game midseason stretch with a hamstring injury.
With the Sayreville, N.J., native healthy, the Knights averaged 1.75 goals per game, not counting Eze’s early departures Sept. 20 against Southern Methodist and Oct. 5 against Cincinnati. In the eight games Eze played limitedly or not at all, Rutgers went 2-6, scoring 0.375 goals per contest.
Head coach Dan Donigan exhausted numerous lineup and formation changes in Eze’s absence, but the Knights still had difficulty scoring without their star striker unclogging the midfield.
Milder injuries to sophomore forward Mitchell Taintor and senior defender Joe Setchell did not ease the improvisation process for a youthful team.
“When guys start getting injured, other guys have to start moving around. They’re not necessarily in their most comfortable position,” said freshman midfielder Erik Sa. “That’s just kind of what you have to do in that situation, but it’s not the easiest thing to do, especially in such a tough schedule. We really don’t have any time to start feeling ourselves out at positions.”
Once Eze returned to form for the postseason, his breakaway speed helped open scoring lanes. He tallied four goals and an assist in the first and second rounds.
But South Florida (8-3-9, 2-2-4), the eventual AAC champions, found a way to contain Eze, holding him to just two shots.
“South Florida, they did a good job of sometimes doubling down or maybe even tripling down whenever we had the ball and they found space, and I was trying to get into space,” Eze said. “South Florida’s a very fast, physical team, so I guess they used that to help them and try to basically get physical with me and provide cover all over the field.”
In the end, Rutgers needed more all-around production behind Eze.
Sophomore midfielder Mael Corboz, the Knights’ other 20-point scorer, found the back of the net twice in the conference tournament. But he lacked a consistent support system.
While Rutgers played sound defense most of the year, putting together five shutouts, Taintor was the only Knight besides Eze and Corboz to find more than one goal.
Sa, one of College Soccer News’ Top Ten Freshmen To Watch in 2013, started all 20 games but adjusted slowly to college’s physicality and speed. He scored a goal and two assists.
Overall, he feels a lack of execution hindered Rutgers’ young talent.
“A lot of college soccer is finding the loose ball because it’s not always going to be the prettiest,” Sa said. “Finding the loose ball, a lot of that is your ability to fight coming off with your physical ability. But another big part about it is it gets you in the right position. … We’re always going to give it our 100 percent athletically with our effort, but sometimes I think the execution when we had the ball needed to be a little better this year.”
But through all the ups and downs, the Knights came together in the conference tournament, winning consecutive games for the first time since mid-September.
Donigan did not return a call to his cell phone for comment.