Chemistry in defense key to success for Rutgers
Defense wins championships.
If this age-old sports cliché is as true as it's hyped up to be, the Rutgers men’s soccer team seemed hopeless in its pursuit for the first piece of silverware as a member of the Big Ten midway through the season.
In their first nine matches, the Scarlet Knights kept just one clean sheet, conceding 12 goals in a mediocre 4-4-1 start to their fall campaign. Rutgers seemed destined to repeat the results of last season, where the team finished 6-12-1 with just one conference win to its name.
But then everything changed.
Rutgers has been on a tear as of late, rattling off six straight wins to improve to 10-4-1. The most recent win — a 1-0 win over No. 18 Ohio State Sunday — put the Knights in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings for the first time since joining the conference last season — something no one expected at the start of the season.
A crucial factor in Rutgers’ longest winning streak since 1997 has been the team’s improvement in the back. The Knights have held four clean sheets in their last six fixtures after the tumultuous start to the season in their final third.
Head coach Dan Donigan credits the improvement of his back line to the gelling together of his players as the season has gone on.
“I think over the course of the season, guys get used to one another,” Donigan said. “(David Greczek has) been performing very, very well right now in between the pipes and the back four have a good synchronicity amongst themselves, and we’re getting better defensive play from our midfield as well. So I think all that contributes to the fact that we’ve been able to keep clean sheets most recently in these games.”
A center back pair that works well together is essential to keeping balls out of the back of the net. Rutgers is fortunate to have a duo that has played together before coming to the Banks.
Senior center backs Mitchell Lurie and Drew Morgan, both natives of Atlanta, Georgia, played on the same Concord Fire club team, despite Lurie being a year older than Morgan.
“I’m a year younger than him, but we played on the same club. I played a year up a lot,” Morgan said. “We both played defense so we kind of had playing experience together. Usually, I’d play center back and he’d play left back but yeah, decent amount of times we played together.”
Friends and roommates outside of the four white lines, the familiarity between the two is evident on the pitch.
“It definitely helps on the field,” Morgan said. “We both respect each other and know how good a players each other are and each others strengths and weaknesses. So if I say something, he’s not going to fight back. He’s just going to take it and go off with it even if he does or doesn’t agree, and we know each other well enough that we aren’t going to fight on the field and we’ll work off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Lurie made the switch to center back once he arrived in Piscataway and has been one of the Knights' best players all season. A relentless tackler and fierce competitor, the fifth-year senior captain enrolled in his third university when he transferred to Rutgers from Louisville.
The former Portland standout was familiar with Donigan and assistant head coach Dave Beck, which piqued his interest for the State University of New Jersey. Once he called his future partner in defense to hear his take on Rutgers, Lurie was sold.
“(Drew) was one of the first people I called when I was deciding to come here or not after Louisville, because I had known him from the past," Lurie said. "I had been friendly (with) and known Beck and Donigan from our (club team) camps … they had recruited me out of high school, so they just gave me an opportunity. I called (Drew) and he gave me a positive review about the place and the guys and just kind of Rutgers as a whole.”
Lurie didn’t have time to make a trip to New Jersey to visit the school before making his decision — he took a risk in committing to the Knights. But after a little more than a year in the Garden State, he is content with how everything has worked out.
“For me, it was my third school so there wasn’t much time for me to decide,” Lurie said. “I didn’t have time to visit places or do any of that … I had never really been to New Jersey, but (Drew’s) feedback really made it a lot easier for me because I didn’t had chance to see this place before I came. I kind of just went into it blind, but it’s worked out very, very well and I’m very happy with the decision I made and having his help made it that much easier.”
Despite being among the biggest reasons for Rutgers’ unexpected surge to the top of the Big Ten table, the center back pair refuses to give all the credit to the backline they share with junior left back Tyler Morris and sophomore right back Niel Guzman.
They instead choose to spread the credit to everyone else who puts in the work on the field.
“Drew, I, Guzzie and Morris, our job is just to help," Lurie said. "We see everything, so being able to get guys in spots early and make sure that guys are closing down the way they should be is our job until balls actually come our way. I think lately … we’ve just been very compact defensively and everybody’s getting into good spots … it allows us as a back-four just to clean up anything that we need to … communication goes a long way and that’s picked up all over the field from up top to the midfield all the way to the back.”
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