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Rutgers looks for identity entering offseason

<p>Freshman forward Jason Wright was a huge contributor during his first season with the Knights, scoring a team-high 10 goals and registering five assists in 19 games.</p>

Freshman forward Jason Wright was a huge contributor during his first season with the Knights, scoring a team-high 10 goals and registering five assists in 19 games.

For three years, the Rutgers men’s soccer team has expected improvement entering the offseason, and for three years, the team has steadily declined.

After making an NCAA Sweet 16 run in 2011, the Scarlet Knights brought in a promising young recruiting class in 2012. 

Although their record was 7-7-1, the team returned key players and had high hopes going into 2013. 

But late game collapses, injuries and inconsistent play derailed a promising team to a 7-11-2 record in its lone year playing in the AAC.

During that offseason, the Knights lost forward Kene Eze to graduation and star midfielder Mael Corboz, who transferred to Maryland. The duo combined for 63 percent of the team’s goals that year.

Despite the losses, Rutgers still felt it was deeper and more experienced from a year ago and expected to do big things entering its inaugural Big Ten season this year. 

But this year’s team proved to be even more disappointing, finishing 6-12-1 and being head coach Dan Donigan’s worst season with Rutgers since his 4-11-1 record in 2010.

Now, entering another offseason coming off another forgetful year, one question stands out: What makes next season any more promising than the previous three?

For Donigan, it’s the struggles the team endured that could pay dividends. 

“Any time you go through these difficult times, it can be a very rewarding experience [because] you don’t want to relive it,” Donigan said. “And you really learn some things along the way, and I truly believe this group has learned quite a bit this year.”

There were plenty of issues to be addressed during a season including a six-game winless streak, several blowout losses and a 1-6-1 conference record.

While consistency played a large part, the loss of Corboz and Eze not only deprived the team of its top goal scorers, but also took away its sense of identity, struggling to find ways to consistently build an attack through possession. 

“Even though a lot of guys were returning, there were times this year that it seemed like there were some great individual moments, but as a team, there wasn’t enough times where we were playing together,” said sophomore midfielder Erik Sa. “So … I think we need to create an identity early on in the year of how we’re going to play and stick with that, and I think everyone on the team needs to buy into it.” 

If Rutgers is to establish its identity next season, it is likely to come through Sa, who was one of the Knights’ better players this year, starting 18 of the team’s 19 games and registering six points with two goals and two assists.

Captaining the New York Red Bull Academy U-18 team to a Development Academy Championship back in high school, the man with the middle name Rutger is likely to absorb senior midfielder Nate Bruccoleri’s leadership duties in the midfield.

Freshman forward Jason Wright is another player Rutgers will build around. The former U-17 Jamaican National Team player scored a team-high 10 goals this season with five assists, the highest point total for a Rutgers player since 2003. 

His speed, ability to dribble at defenders and natural instincts to be in scoring positions inside the 18-yard box established him as one of the best freshmen and forwards in the country.

If the Knights can establish an identity with their play style, the pieces are there to make a serious run next season. 

The team will lose only one starter to graduation in Bruccoleri and will have up to 14 upperclassmen next season.

Among those are senior defender Mitch Lurie and junior defender Tyler Morris, who redshirted this year due to NCAA transfer regulations. 

“We have a lot of guys who are coming back, a lot of guys who have been through the Big Ten this year that know what to expect for next year,” Bruccoleri said. “So I think the team’s moving in a really good direction.”

Rutgers is also set to add some talented freshmen in defender Zachary Perez, who is ranked No. 126 on Top Drawer Soccer’s IMG Academy Rankings, and versatile forward Brian Hawkins, a 2014 High School All-American selection from Notre Dame High School in New Jersey. 

Although Donigan was unable to comment on his recruiting class until everything is finalized, he said the team could add upwards of eight players to the team.

It remains to be seen if Rutgers will actually halt its downward trend, but more experience entering the second year of the Big Ten gives Donigan belief that a repeat of 2011 is a reasonable expectation.

“I endured a 4-11-1 season my first year, and we made it to the Sweet 16 the next year,” Donigan said. “… So I firmly believe, and I shouldn’t be in the business if I didn’t believe it, that we could have a team that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament next year, I really do. And it’s just going to be determined by how these guys respond in the offseason heading into next fall.”

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

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