Rutgers men's soccer unveils its 2017 recruiting class
The Rutgers men’s soccer team unveiled its 2017 recruiting class Thursday, introducing 13 newly named Scarlet Knights to the Banks.
The class consists of 10 high school seniors — eight of which from New Jersey — two international players and a junior college transfer. The group is divided into six defenders, two in midfield, one forward and the remaining two goalkeepers, according to a press release.
"This incoming class has talent, great character, loyalty and selflessness - exactly what we wanted to target with this core group" said head coach Dan Donigan in a statement. "We again have pulled in a bunch of local, talented guys in an effort to keep some of the very best guys home in New Jersey and reached out to several top programs around the country to find the right compliment of players for the program.
Rafael Pereira, the lone JUCO transfer, was a former international player himself.
He arrived at Marshalltown Community Junior College in Iowa from his hometown of Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. He made an immediate impact, starting all 21 games as a freshman between the pipes, where he posted a nation-leading .041 goals-against-average and a program record 10 shutouts, good for second in the country.
Pereira’s presence in goal played a large role in the Tigers’ back-to-back appearances in the Region XI Tournament and 22 consecutive weeks in the National Junior College Athletics Association (NJCAA) rankings, where they peaked at a program-best No. 3 in 2016. He was named an NJCAA All-American and First-Team All-Region XI in both his years in Marshalltown, along with seven Iowa Community College Athletic Conference Player of the Week awards.
With a vacancy in goal after four-year starter and program save leader David Greczek graduated and was drafted by Major League Soccer's Sporting Kansas City, Pereira is well-positioned to fight for and potentially earn the starting spot in goal.
Fellow first-year Knight Aedan Bariotti, who comes to Piscataway after earning a state title with Christian Brothers Academy, and juniors Brian Shushkovsky and Joe Bruno are also in the mix.
"Rafael brings a maturity and experience into our goalkeeping position. We expect him to compete for the starting spot immediately,” Donigan said in the statement. “Rafael has great feet, great agility and exudes tremendous confidence in the players that are on the field in front of him. He has had great success at Marshalltown Community Junior College and this will help him transition into our conference as he has confidence in himself and this is very important trait for a goalkeeper with a young backline."
The majority of the class is projected to play on the backline — and with good reason. The Knights ranked 200 out of 203 programs in Division I in goals-against-average last season, allowing an abysmal 2.4 goals per game.
A lack of depth on the backline after the departure of two senior center backs in Mitch Lurie and Drew Morgan to graduation forced Donigan to move full backs Niel Guzman and Tyler Morris into the middle of his backline, where they struggled.
It didn’t help that rising senior midfielder Erik Sa and promising sophomore Brian Hawkins both missed the entire season due to injuries picked up in the offseason, with junior forward Miles Hackett joining them after picking up a season-ending injury three games into the season.
It significantly hampered the firepower Rutgers had in attack, increasing the already heavy load on junior forward Jason Wright. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year again led the Knights in scoring, but his goal total of six was the first in his three years on the Banks to not reach double-digits.
The chaos culminated in a 1-14-2 season without a single conference win and with losses of 5-0, 4-0 and 6-5 at Charlotte, at Michigan State and home against Florida Gulf Coast, respectively, mixed in.
Donigan knows it won’t get any easier playing in the Big Ten, but believes this class has the talent to help right the ship.
"Rutgers has always had a challenging conference schedule and never shys away from competing against the very best programs in the country every year.” Donigan said. “Every season poses different challenges and each season can be significantly different than the last and we expect this coming season to be much different than last season, but we must put in the work."
Aaron Acloque is the only member of the incoming class listed as a forward, a position of need following Wright’s departure. But though he led his club in scoring four years straight as a member of the youth teams of Jersey United, his "Fall 2016" Hudl highlight tape shows him playing more as a defensive midfielder.
Donigan’s description of Acloque in the press release points towards the current Players Development Academy member and Immaculata High School alum spending most of his minutes in midfield, where he excels at using his big body to physically overpower opponents to gain possession.
"Aaron fits into the Big Ten Conference as he is a physical presence in the middle of the field where he can regain possession, break plays up and provide a physicality to the game,” Donigan said. “He is a guy who has tremendous work ethic and an honest effort will always be given by him to the team. Great character and honest work ethic is what we will see from him in training and games every time he steps onto the field."
Still, with the return of Sa, Hackett and Hawkins — whose younger brother is 1 of the 2 midfielders announced in the class — the Knights looked poised to increase their depth upfront and improve on their .94 goal-per-game average.
The 13 additions in the recruiting class and return of key players from injury point towards improvement on the nightmare that was the Knights’ 2016 season.
“We feel that there will be great competition in every position in the preseason and that will make for what we hope to be a successful campaign,” Donigan said. “We believe that this group will come and fight, battle and work incredibly hard both in and out of season, as well as on and off the field, to reach our goals as a program.”