Rutgers opens season with three straight losses to ranked opponents
The Rutgers men's soccer team came into the 2016 season ranked No. 25 in the initial National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll of the season and high expectations after last season's success.
The Scarlet Knights aim to surpass last year’s heroics, in which they reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament and tied for third place in one of the top conferences in college soccer.
But the Knights had a brutal opening stretch to the 2016 season, dropping three straight matches against ranked opponents, conceeding eight goals and scoring none.
Rutgers (0-3) opened its slate hosting No. 8 Creighton on August 26, where they lost 2-0 after playing down a man for the final half-hour of the match.
Despite the Blue Jays had more shots on goal than the Knights — 10 to 1 in the opening half — the match entered halftime nil-nil.
The first save of the season for senior goalkeeper David Greczek was a full body dive to his left to catch a strike in midair to keep the game scoreless early.
An early opportunity at the start of the second half came from junior left back Kyle Goodwin, who received a pass from senior centerback Neil Guzman and ran down the left flank until he belted in a cross to junior winger Miles Hackett. Hackett turned to the goal, but his strike flew over the crossbar and Rutgers missed out on its best chance to score.
Although the Knights had less possession and shots on goal throughout the game, head coach Dan Donigan said he felt that his team was doing enough to stay in the game.
“We were withstanding and again, (Creighton), they’re a good team and sometimes, to win, that’s what you gotta do,” Donigan said. “It was our game plan (to) let them come at us, (so we could) withstand what they’re coming with at us initially. And then we’ll get our opportunities, and I thought we had an unbelievable opportunity with Miles’ chance. You may say that’s only one quality chance, but that’s all you need in this game.”
It wasn’t until a penalty kick by Creighton’s Lucas Stauffer in the 58th minute that started the domino effect, giving Creighton (1-1) a 1-0 lead.
A minute later, junior forward Ryan Peterson was issued a second yellow card, sending him off the pitch and leaving Rutgers a man down.
Four minutes after that, Riggs Lennon took advantage of Greczek playing off his line, striking the ball from 30 meters out to put the ball past his outstretched hand. This put the Blue Jays up 2-0, all but securing the win.
In the second game of the weekend, the Knights suffered another tight loss to a ranked-foe, No. 13 Denver (2-0-1) by a score of 1-0.
The Pioneers took the lead in the second minute through midfielder Alex Underwood and never gave it up.
“You can’t give up those goals,” Donigan said. “I’ve been in this game a long time, and you can’t give up an early goal. They're gonna hit the wall, which they absolutely did because that’s just the circumstances surrounding this game. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to capitalize, and we weren’t able to get behind them."
The Pioneers controlled the ball for most of the first half, looking to tack on some insurance, but keeper Greczek fought off multiple attempts to give Rutgers some life that in the end it could not take advantage of.
The Knights had multiple opportunities turned down in the first half. Hackett was denied on his first attempt in the 29th minute and again in the 33rd, struggling to get past the Pioneers’ defense.
“They’re a very organized team,” Hackett said on why his team could not put one in net. “They communicated well and defended as a team.”
Junior midfielder Ahmad Faheem had all of Yurack Field on their feet as he shot from 17 yards out during a scramble in the box, but the shot would be blocked again by the Pioneers’ defense.
The two shots that junior striker Jason Wright, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the year, mustered up were also inconsequential as he was swarmed with coverage throughout the whole 90 minutes.
“It’s been difficult,” Wright said. “Whenever the ball plays into me, it attracts a lot of players. So far it’s been difficult to actually make a significant impact for the team. It’s definitely on me to go to the drawing board, do something different and try to make a more significant impact.”
Rutgers went down south to face South Carolina in its first road test of the season last Friday, but the game got cancelled due to inclement weather.
The Knights then traveled up to No. 19 Charlotte (2-0) for their first road match of the season, looking for their first win.
But all didn’t go as planned, as Rutgers was outshot 15-5, while allowing two early goals for the second straight game to see the score board multiply as the 49ers beat the Knights 5-0.
“Look, there’s so many important things you need to have your focus on and that’s one of them,” Donigan said, referring to allowing early goals. “And obviously we didn’t take care of it the past two games. Getting off to a bad start and giving up an early goal ... can really set the tone for the afternoon”
Those goals did set the tone for the afternoon as No.19 Charlotte scored just 7 minutes in to the game as redshirt sophomore Daniel Bruce put one in the net.
Just five minutes after the 49ers grabbed the early lead, sophomore Callum Montgomery would score his first of two goals of the evening to put Charlotte up 2-0 just 12 minutes into the game.
Rutgers was only able to muster up two shots in the first 45 minutes.
Charlotte would tack on another three goals in the second half to capture its second win of the season, while handing the Knights' third straight loss.
Although all of Rutgers' opponents so far have been top-25 teams to start the season off, Donigan believes his team needs to do more work on offense to give his team an opportunity to score and support Wright
“Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in this game,” Donigan said. “We’ve really found it difficult right now to try to get more help to Jason (Wright). We gotta get better flank play, we gotta get better possession in the midfield, and we gotta be able to sustain possession to build up attack, and we just haven’t been able to do that.”
The Knights will play next on Friday in East Lansing, looking to get revenge on last year's 3-1 home defeat.
“We gotta come out and take care of business,” Donigan said. “And certainly today is a perfect example of when you don’t do your job, and you don’t come to compete and play right away that that’s what can happen with a schedule like (the one) we’re playing. Unfortunately it’s a hard lesson learned for our guys.”
For updates on the Rutgers men's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.