Notebook: New freshmen, McElderry changing culture

Typically, when a new coach takes over a struggling program, he’s working with a combination of holdovers from his predecessor and promising — but inexperienced — freshmen. Short-term expectations are minimal, and the focus is on player development and talent evaluation. 

New Rutgers men’s soccer team head coach Jim McElderry found himself in charge of a similar roster when he took over for Dan Donigan last fall. The 2019 roster is made up of 11 freshmen and two transfers. Coming off a four-win campaign in 2018, most Scarlet Knights (2-0) fans expected this year to serve as a reset, with an emphasis on building for the future.

But after a 1-0 win over Temple and a 2-1 victory over Drexel, it’s possible that McElderry’s Rutgers team could be poised to change that narrative and restore some respect for one of college soccer’s most historic programs.

Program-building is nothing new for McElderry. At Fordham, he led the Rams to three NCAA Tournament appearances and developed several players who went on to have successful pro careers. Most notably, he coached Ryan Meara, a longtime backup goalkeeper for the New York Red Bulls. His track record of success and player development was a major reason behind Director of Athletics Pat Hobbs’s decision to hire him last November.

"(McElderry) comes to the Banks with a proven record of program building resulting in NCAA Tournament appearances and numerous accolades for his student-athletes for their performances on the pitch and in the classroom,” Hobbs said when announcing his hiring. “(He) brings a great vision for the future of our program and has strong recruiting ties both regionally and internationally.”

Those recruiting ties have played a big role in acquiring much of the talent in this year’s freshman class. He has been able to recruit local MLS academy products like true freshman defender Chris Tiao, who played USL minutes with the Red Bulls II before joining the team this fall.

“(Tiao) has been a top player for the Red Bulls academy these past few seasons,” McElderry said. “(He) is tough and will compete at all times, (and) technically, will help us build from the back and get forward.”

Tiao has established himself as one of the impact freshmen early on, playing a full 90 minutes in both games and as a hybrid fullback-attacker, serving as a key component in the Rutgers counterattack.

At the same time, he has also brought in some international talent to the Knights. An early standout from this freshman class has been Oren Asher, an Israeli goalkeeper who was recruited from the Maccabi Herzilya academy.

“(Asher) is a mature keeper with a lot of experience,” McElderry said. “I expect (him) to set the standard for our keepers in terms of training and knowing how to compete every session.”

Asher has done more than that, having won the starting job over Alabama-Birmingham transfer junior James Teal and fellow freshman Cameron Farrar. In his first two starts for Rutgers, he has allowed only one goal and made clutch second-half saves in both games.

While the Knights have achieved some early success early on, the most difficult challenges still lie ahead. For starters, their next game is a road matchup with Elon, who dealt Rutgers an 8-1 defeat at Yurcak Field last September.

But these early results are a sign that the culture is changing in Piscataway, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. While the Knights haven’t been successful as of late, they have been a soccer powerhouse for years, boasting prominent alumni like U.S. World Cup veterans Peter Vermes and Alexi Lalas.

It's a history that McElderry knows all too well, and is looking to use as inspiration when building for the future.

"As a native of New Jersey, I understand the history of Rutgers men's soccer,” McElderry said when introduced last year. “I will work tirelessly to attract top level student-athletes, compete at a high level in the Big Ten and on the national stage and engage the alumni and Rutgers fan base to support a team they will be proud to call their own." 

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

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