Rutgers struggle early on following historic season

<p>Senior midfielder Madison Tiernan leads the Rutgers women's soccer team in goals with three through the first five matches of the season.</p>

Senior midfielder Madison Tiernan leads the Rutgers women's soccer team in goals with three through the first five matches of the season.

High Point Solutions Stadium may be where the money is on Busch Campus, but Yurcak Field is sacred ground.

The Rutgers women’s soccer team, who is no stranger to Yurcak, didn’t lose a single home game on its way to becoming one of the final four teams standing in the NCAA Tournament last season, reaching the College Cup for the first time in program history.

With expectations extremely high coming into this year, the Scarlet Knights got off to a bumpy start as they look to match and exceed the feats of 2015.

Currently ranked 23rd in the country in the latest National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, Rutgers has amassed three wins, one loss and one draw in the first five matches of the campaign.

Beginning at in-state rival Rider, the Knights rolled to a 4-1 victory that saw senior captain Madison Tiernan score on opening day for the third time in her career with rookie midfielder Nicole Whitley joining her in her first chance as she recorded a goal and an assist points in her debut.

“I’m just really glad I have good teammates who allow me to be a playmaker,” Whitley said. “I wouldn’t get goals or assists without other great players on the field around me.”

The match was also Alana Jimenez’s first start in goal and win. She took the place of junior goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who is all but guaranteed to take a redshirt this season due to her likely participation in the FIFA U-20 World Cup with the United States women's national soccer team this fall.

Eleven players in total made their first appearances for Rutgers against the Broncs, including freshman forward Brittany LaPlant, who would be vital in the Knights’ subsequent match against Providence.

Rutgers won almost every statistical battle — outshooting the Friars 24-4, with a 10-2 advantage of shots on goal and nine more corner kicks — but couldn't translate the shots to goals as the game ended in a 1-1 draw after two overtime periods.

LaPlant provided the lone goal for the Knights in the tie, her first goal in scarlet and white.

Rutgers remained at home for the next match, finding more success as it defeated Saint Joseph’s 1-0.

It was another freshman factoring her first goal that pushed the Knights to victory. Defender Amanda Visco volleyed the ball into the back of the net on a pinpoint free kick delivery from Whitley in the final 20 minutes of the match.

The stats again demonstrated Rutgers dominance in the match as it had 10 more shots and six more corners than the Hawks, but this time it was able to take all three points.

“We're hoping that we continue to create and knock down the door,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “I thought we played well, we just made it difficult on ourselves by not finishing chances”

The defense that was constantly among the top five teams in the nation in goals against last season remained superb in the opening stretch of 2016, prohibiting the opponent from attempting more than five shots on goal for three straight matches.

The Knights then traveled to Storrs to play then-No. 10 UConn.

The combination of veterans and newcomers came through yet again as Whitley set up Tiernan, who provided her third assist and second goal of the season in a 2-0 win over the Huskies. LaPlant scored the second goal of the match and her personal tally to seal the win.

After the match, the team journeyed back home to host Georgetown.

Early on, it looked all Rutgers when senior Jennifer Andresen headed the ball forward from midfield to set Tiernan up for a run.

The Voorhees, New Jersey, native dribbled ahead and shook the Hoya defense before booting a left-footed laser at the right post for a 1-0 lead.

The goal was Tiernan's team-leading third this season.

“Last year I wasn’t statistically heavy, but I’m prepared to help the team win by scoring goals,” she said. “Individual success helps team success.”

But that goal wasn't enough as the Hoyas gained a penalty shot to tie the game 11 minutes after Tiernan's opener. The rest of regulation time was scoreless, but 25 seconds into overtime midfielder Rachel Corboz fired a strike past Jimenez for her second goal of the day.

The Knights entered the match at No. 12 nationally and are now at 23, dropping 11 spots on the national rankings after the upset, but it hasn't affected their mindset.

“We don’t dwell on rankings or outside influences,” Whitley said. “We can’t focus on it because we need to be centered in on achieving our goals.”

Rutgers continues its home stand Friday against Cornell at Yurcak Field.

The squad looks to defend its home field after seeing a loss there for the first time in 18 matches.

“You don’t want to see another team celebrating on your turf,” Tiernan said. “We’ll learn from it and get better as a whole to not let that happen again.”

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

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