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Rutgers works to fill holes left by losses to injury, graduation

<p>Senior midfielder Erik Sa is missing the 2016 season with an ankle injury. He is one of many Knights struggling with injury. </p>

Senior midfielder Erik Sa is missing the 2016 season with an ankle injury. He is one of many Knights struggling with injury.

The Rutgers men's soccer team surpassed all expectations in 2016.

The Scarlet Knights went 12-7-2, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011, reached the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and finished ranked No. 23 in the final NSCAA Coaches poll.

The Knights shocked everyone with their accomplishments, but they had many contributors to that success. 

Jason Wright was the main one.

The junior forward captured the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award, earned Second Team NSCAA All-American honors, NSCAA First Team All-Region honors, unanimous First Team All-Big Ten selection and was chosen as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award four times.

Wright was complimented by a midfield led by Mitchell Taintor.

Taintor, who was drafted by Toronto FC in the 2016 Major League Soccer Superdraft and is currently playing at Toronto FC II in the United Soccer League, played in 20 of Rutgers' 21 games, putting up five goals and as many assists.

Center back Mitch Lurie was drafted before Taintor by the Philadelphia Union and is now playing for Saint Louis FC in the USL. He started all 21 games and led a defense that held eight clean sheets — the most in a season for the Knights since 1998.

Current senior midfielder Erik Sa and sophomore forward Brian Hawkins also played big roles in last season’s accomplishments.

Hawkins earned a unanimous selection to the 2015 Big Ten All-Freshman Team while Sa was a vital piece to the Rutgers midfield, providing five assists to go with a pair of goals.

They both were projected to be critical pieces this fall, but are both injured and out for the whole 2016 season, Sa with an ankle injury and Hawkins with a knee injury.

Add in the hamstring injury junior forward Miles Hackett sustained in the season opener against then-No. 7 Creighton, and the team that ended last season at No. 23 in the NSCAA poll is much different than the one that started 2016 at No. 25.

The goal was to surpass, if not replicate last season's accomplishments, but the competitive squad from last year has turned into a team with a 0-4 start.

“Quite honestly, Erik really was an integral part of our attack and our midfield play last year, and obviously Brian Hawkins had a very good freshman season and we were certainty dependent upon those guys to come in and start, (and) if not play 90, play significant minutes," said head coach Dan Donigan. "I would tell you that you probably would need to throw Miles Hackett into that conversation as well because he went down in the Creighton game with a hamstring injury and he hasn’t played since.”

So far this season, Rutgers has scored seven less goals then they did at the same point in its previous season.

The Knights also have just one more shot four games into the 2016 season (20) than they did in the opening game last season against Siena (19).

Rutgers has just one goal so far this season and with a schedule that doesn’t ease up at all, the Knights could be in for a long season.

Although Rutgers has four players injured and two more out for the year, the eligible players can still step up to the plate, get past the adapting period and produce for a team that is struggling, according to Sa.

“I think me and Brian Hawkins were a big part of creating chances last year and a big part of the offense,” Sa said. “So it's tough for the team. Like I was saying, there’s lots of new guys from last year and it takes a little time sometimes. When you have a schedule like we have it's not gonna be easy ... It might take a little time, but the guys have the talent.”

The guys may have talent, but in Donigan’s eyes, his team just cannot find the right personnel combinations to perform.

“I'll be very honest with you, I think it's just the personnel. We’re trying to figure out who’s gonna be able to perform where and right now we haven’t been able to find the right combinations," Donigan said. "Last year, you had the Mitchell Taintor’s with Mitch Lurie and (centerback) Drew Morgan and (forward) JP Correa out wide and Jason was able to be more productive. And now, not only is Jason not being productive because of the other guys that are not on the field with him, its just different personal out there."

But not everyone believes personnel is an issue. Junior defender Neil Guzman said his teammates are missing but personnel is still there.

“To be honest, we're missing a few key pieces, but we still have the personnel to score goals," he said.

With injuries piling up and lack of creating offense increasing, Rutgers as a group must enhance its defense to create and build up an attack to eventually give itself a chance to score.

“I think collectively as a group we gotta do a better job of defending and then we gotta be able to build up some kind of an attack," Donigan said. "Right now, we can't even keep the ball, we can't protect the ball, we're not holding on to the ball as we enter the mid-third and certainly final third of the field. We just can’t sustain possession and build up an attack to create good chances, and that’s the game."

For updates on the Rutgers men's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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