March 23, 2019 | 30° F

Rutgers eyes New Jersey soccer crown in battle at Monmouth

Photo by Edwin Gano |

Junior midfielder Erik Sa is looking forward to seeing some familiar faces on the opposite side of the pitch tonight when Rutgers faces Monmouth. Sa believes Rutgers will prove it is the top team in the state.

When Rutgers entered the Big Ten, some of the top teams in the country were automatically added to the yearly schedule. While playing against top opposition is a big boost to the program and an exciting thought for fans, no conference game has the same feel and emotion as a local derby. 

The Rutgers men’s soccer team will take the short drive down Route 18 to the shore in West Long Branch, where it will face Monmouth at 7 p.m Wednesday night. 

Facing opposition from the same state includes the incentive of bragging rights — something that adds some spice to an already heated matchup.

“I think it makes it that much more fun because you’re playing against a lot of guys you’ve played against growing up and a lot of people start paying attention when it’s an in-state game,” said junior midfielder Erik Sa. “They want to see who the best team in New Jersey is and hopefully we can prove that’s us.”

The Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) enter Hesse Field on a two-game losing skid, with the most recent of the pair coming in a double-overtime heartbreaker to Big Ten foe Wisconsin.

Senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor led the aggressive Knights offense against the Badgers, taking a game-high eight of Rutgers’ 27 shots on the night. Disappointed with the final result, Taintor believes the Knights played quality soccer and deserved the win.

“I thought, as a team, we played very well. Probably the best soccer we’ve played in a while,” he said. “It was just unfortunate in the end. I’m pretty sure that’s actually never happened in a soccer game before, a buzzer beater. It’s something we can learn from, playing from the first whistle to the last whistle.”

Leaving Yurcak Field without the sought after win of the weekend, the Storrs, Connecticut, native and his team have a chip on their shoulder as they prepare to face the Hawks (2-3).

“I obviously would’ve liked to win but I think this loss puts a chip on our shoulder because now we’re 2-2 and we need to come into Monmouth ready to go and come out aggressive,” Taintor said.

Rutgers will accept nothing but a victory when they step on the pitch tonight.

“Obviously, a win and a great performance from the team,” Taintor said of his expectations. “I think everyone’s looking forward to it. Everyone is looking to prove something because now we have something to prove. … I think everyone’s ready to go and focused.”

After beginning their conference slate against the Badgers, the Knights will take a break from the Big Ten gauntlet in facing Monmouth, a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).

Head coach Dan Donigan doesn’t see it that way.

“No, there’s no breaks,” Donigan said. “The only difference is it doesn’t count in conference towards your record and your points to get a seed in the postseason tournament. There’s really no breaks in our schedule in any terms, how I look at it. Every game is important, every game is difficult, every game is about how you prepare for it so really, there’s no such thing as a break for us in our schedule.”

The sixth-year head coach also does not feel the in-state aspect of the match makes it any more exciting than the others.

“No, to be honest with you, not really,” Donigan said when asked if facing an in-state rival is more exciting. “We’re just hoping it’s another good game. We want to win every time we step on the field so we have a lot of exciting games on our schedule no matter how you look at it — in-state games, in-conference games, out-of-conference games against a top program. They’re all exciting games but nothing in particular gets you more excited than the next.”

On the flip side, Monmouth is currently residing on the opposite side of the spectrum as the Knights.

Entering the season ranked No. 21 by TopDrawerSoccer and receiving votes for the College Soccer News Preseason Top 30 poll, the Hawks are currently on a two-game winning streak, including their latest 3-1 win over No. 25 Villanova on Saturday, after beginning their season 0-3.

Goalkeeper Eric Klenofsky was named the preseason MAAC Player of the Year after leading the nation in goals against average in both 2013 and 2014, while also ranking second in saves percentage in 2014.

Although Rutgers has the historical edge over their hosts, winning the first 11 meetings between the sides, Monmouth will have good memories of the matchup. The Hawks defeated the Knights 3-0 at Yurcak Field last season, marking their first win in 12 tries.

Despite the pedigree of the opponent, Sa has no doubts about who the best team in the state is.

“Yeah, I think so,” Sa said in regard to if he believes Rutgers to be the best team in New Jersey. “We have so much talent on this team. We’re getting there. We showed a lot against Wisconsin the other night. … But I can say whatever I want but we have to prove it on Wednesday night.”

The former USMNT U-15 squad member foresees a performance similar to the most recent outing from his team, with the exception of the Knights putting the ball in the back of the net.

“I expect us to go into that game and play just like we did against Wisconsin," Sa said. "Maybe have a little bit more chemistry in the front third of the field, create a little bit more quality chances. But every other aspect of the game, I expect us to be clicking on all cylinders like we did against Wisconsin.”

For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Brian Fonseca

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