Revamped attack benefits junior forward
From the vantage point of Yurcak Field’s bleachers during the Rutgers men’s soccer team’s opening game last Friday night against UMKC, a Kangaroos midfielder found himself with yards of space on the counter attack.
Four seconds later freshman forward Miles Hackett, who was about three car lengths behind the play, had already caught up to the midfielder and dispossessed him of the ball.
The play prompted several fans to verbally come to the same conclusion: “Dang, he’s fast.”
But Hackett is not the only member of this revamped Scarlet Knights offense to possess game changing speed, something head coach Dan Donigan made sure to address during the offseason.
Along with Hackett, Donigan brought in junior college transfer Rayon Gibbs, freshman forward Jason Wright and junior Olisa Eze, the younger brother of former standout Kene Eze, to help complement junior forward J.P. Correa in the attack.
Against both UMKC and Lafayette on Sunday, that speed was on display as all of Rutgers’ attackers actively looked to challenge defenders one-on-one.
“I don’t want to stifle what I brought them in here to do, and that’s to attack and run at people and break guys down,” Donigan said Sunday postgame. “And I think we kind of wore Lafayette and UMKC down to get the opportunities and the goals needed to get the results. So I’m encouraging that.”
The Knights clearly lacked that ability last season. Aside from Kene Eze, Rutgers struggled to create chances off the dribble, relying heavily on former midfielder Mael Corboz to spark the offense.
When the Knights could not find Eze with over top balls, the plan was to patiently build through Corboz. It was a perfect strategy until Eze’s injury, which caused more double teams on Corboz and less space to operate in the midfield with no one able to stretch defenses up top.
Now Rutgers not only has five viable options up front, but the added speed out wide allows Correa to move inside to his favorable withdrawn forward position where he registered a team-high six goals and five assists as a freshman.
“It wasn’t my favorite thing to do [playing out wide], but I had to get through it,” Correa said. “Now I’m back in the middle like my freshman year. I feel like it’s my natural position, so back to my old ways hopefully this year so I’m happy in the middle.”
With the surplus of quick options at Donigan’s disposal, the Knights’ shape has changed to a two-striker formation with Correa playing slightly underneath Wright.
This system change not only benefits the likes of Correa and sophomore midfielder Erik Sa, who will both play more centrally, but also appears to be aiding the outside backs.
Of the three Rutgers goals, junior defender Ross Tetro had a helping hand in two of them.
With two forwards, Tetro is given an extra option to distribute the ball, making it easier for him to contribute in the attack.
That proved evident during the Knights’ lone goal against UMKC when Tetro played a perfectly weighted through ball to Wright inside the 18-yard box, which the forward buried.
“The two forwards up there means there are more people up there helping and creating more chances,” Tetro said. “I think J.P. [Correa] is playing really well underneath the forwards helping us a lot how he’s playing, and it’s definitely easier for us coming out of the back and finding someone to pass the ball to.”
Although Donigan says it’s impossible to predict how strong the offense will be having played just two regular season games, the fifth-year coach has high hopes.
“We brought these guys in because we thought they were capable,” Donigan said. “And that’s capable to win a conference and to make a run in the NCAA tournament. For me, the ceiling is high, but again, we have a significantly long way to go.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @SeanStewartRU and @TargumSports on Twitter.