Rutgers gains confidence after big win
You win some, you lose some.
The Rutgers men’s soccer team had an interesting past few games. Despite dominating possession and creating more chances than their opponents, the Scarlet Knights (3-2-1, 1-1-0) left their matches against Wisconsin and Monmouth without a win.
Rutgers suffered a heartbreaking, last-second defeat to the Badgers (2-4-0 , 1-0) at home and drew a 0-0 tie when it visited the Hawks (3-3-1) in West Long Branch.
Heading into Bloomington to face No. 22 Indiana after falling to a struggling Wisconsin team projected to finish last in the Big Ten and a Monmouth team that disappointed after starting the season ranked at No. 21 had Knights fans worried.
But Rutgers was inching closer and closer to scoring after being shutout in two consecutive contests, and the floodgates were opened at Jerry Yeagley Field at Bill Armstrong Stadium. The Knights scored three goals in the opening 45 minutes and four in total to stun Indiana, 4-1, in front of 1,842 in attendance.
The dominant performance over the Hoosiers (3-3-1, 0-2) showed that Rutgers has the potential to bury teams with multiple threats going forward. But sometimes, soccer can be cruel.
“Soccer’s a funny game,” said junior midfielder Erik Sa. “That can happen. You can control the whole game and end up losing the game or you can control the whole game and it’ll show on the scoreboard.”
The former captain of the Red Bulls U-18 academy team hopes the Knights will continue to display their talents with exhibitions like the one they had in Indiana.
“I think that the team that scored the four goals is hopefully the team we’ll turn into,” Sa said. “It was a pretty dominant performance by us and we’re happy that playing the right way and controlling most of the game led to a big win like that. Instead of just getting lucky, we felt very strongly that we won with conviction. That was a very important part of that win, not just getting it on the road but also being the better team and not just sneaking away with one.”
Sa was on the last Rutgers team to upset a ranked opponent when the Knights defeated No. 7 Louisville in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Nov. 9, 2013.
The Watchung, New Jersey, native acknowledges the boost in morale an upset provides, but knows the team cannot be satisfied.
“I definitely think that, especially going into a storied program like Indiana and winning with some insurance, really boosts up the morale of the team,” Sa said. “We feel very confident, but we also know that there’s so much to work on. I think … we’re taking it in the right direction. As opposed to kind of sitting back and being content, we realize that it’s a big win but at the same time, there’s a lot of work to do still.”
While there is a different feeling defeating a team you’re not expected to, every win is just that — a win — to head coach Dan Donigan.
“Yeah, I guess so, in the back of your mind,” Donigan said on whether beating a ranked opponent has a special feeling. “But a win is a win at the end of the day. The big factor is the RPI wins, the road wins as opposed to a neutral win or a home win. All of those things have degrees of variables that affect what that win means or what that tie means or that loss means.”
With the attention focused solely on the offenses’ inability to produce in the final third as of late, Rutgers’ defense has been quietly having a good season.
Although they've only held a clean sheet just once this season, the Knights' back four has been solid and allowed their team to stay in games and be able to commit numbers in the final third.
“(The defense has been) really good,” Donigan said. “In the crucial moments, they recognize when we have to buckle down and focus and do whatever we gotta do to get that ball out or break that play up or disrupt things. They’ve been instrumental in the success of our team. We’re a much better defensive unit right now than we’ve been in years past.”
The sixth-year head coach points out the outlooks his defenders have on the game as the reason for their success.
“The mindset, the mentality,” Donigan said. “Drew has always had a great mindset. Guzzie (Niel Guzman) is always a competitive, tough kid and he defends his butt off. Tyler Morris and Mitchell Lurie are difference makers, in my opinion. Mitchell Lurie’s a leader, a captain, he’s vocal. He’s tremendously competitive and Tyler Morris is the same way. Both of those kids are rough around the edges in a good way.”
Senior center back Drew Morgan credits the success of his back line to the way their individual abilities compliment each other.
“A lot of our personalities and traits work off of each other,” he said. “If someone has a strength in one area or a weakness in one area, someone could just pick up off each other. Me and Mitch Lurie go way back to Georgia. We used to play together so it’s nice to be able to mix up easy with him and a lot of our strengths and weaknesses work well with each other and we’re all friends and like each other so it’s easy to work and play with each other every day.”
The win over No. 22 Indiana was convincing, but after the final whistle blew, it was over and the minds of the Knights shifted to Friday night’s meeting with Michigan State at Yurcak Field.
The last result means nothing. And in the competitive league that is the Big Ten, every game is different.
“Right now, nothing’s changing for us,” Donigan said. “We know we have a very good Michigan State team coming into town and we’ve gotta be firing on all cylinders. It’s the Big Ten. This league is very, very difficult no matter who you’re playing, top to bottom. Really, for me, there’s no top and no bottom. It’s the Big Ten and it’s very, very difficult.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.