No. 5 Jumbos look strong ahead of season opener

Junior midfielder Brett Rojas brings the ball forward in the first half of the men's soccer home game for the NCAA Sectional Finals against Brandeis at Bello Field on Nov. 19, 2017. Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily Archives

It’s been four years since the Tufts men’s soccer team rocked Div. III in capturing its first-ever NCAA championship. Since then, the Jumbos have established their reputation as a powerhouse in both the NESCAC and the entire division — they repeated their NCAA championship success in 2016 and claimed their first-ever NESCAC title last season.

Despite the string of recent successes, the team was disappointed with its performance last season. A 1–0 double-overtime loss to Brandeis in the Elite Eight round brought to an end a record-breaking season, during which the team only conceded two goals. This loss was preceded by two goalless draws that stretched through double-overtime and went all the way to penalties.

The issue of not finishing on the attack has been a focus of the team for several seasons dating back to 2016. The team scored only 34 goals in 22 games to emerge as national champions that year. The Jumbos’ success largely resulted from the strength of their defensive unit, as they boasted 13 clean sheets the same season and often emerged victorious by close goal margins.

In 2017, Tufts scored 40 goals  a clear increase on the previous year. The Jumbos even scored 10 goals in one game against the Mt. St. Vincent Dolphins. However, upon entering nationals, the Jumbos failed to find the back of the net even once.

“We’ve done a lot more finishing drills and made sure our strikers know each other well and can read each other’s body language to make sure they’re running off of each other,” senior co-captain and goalkeeper Conner Mieth said. “We’ve mixed in new formations and tried to build out a 352 to make sure we’re getting enough numbers up. We’ve brought in a lot of pieces up top and we’re very young, so we have to get that together, but as we just saw in the scrimmage, we’re getting there.”

Veteran co-captain and defender Sterling Weatherbie brings experience to the four-man senior class. His classmates, including defender Jackson Najjar and midfielder Jarod Glover, will be supported by three large classes below them of eight players each. Since both the senior and junior classes were part of the NCAA-winning 2016 team, they will likely bring experience and leadership to the team that the underclassmen lack.

Every year, as the team turns over, there are gaps to fill on the field. This year in particular, the focus will be on the central midfield positions. Four-year starter Tyler Kulcsar (E ’18) was instrumental to the ball movement through the central third, while his classmate Kevin Halliday (E ’18) often started in the central midfield yet shifted to the front when needed. However, according to coach Josh Shapiro, the team is well-prepared to fill those roles.

“It is what it is,” Shapiro said. “When you have a good team you lose good players, and our philosophy is that we try to be as well prepared as we can when that happens. You have a player like [sophomore] Calvin Aroh who didn’t play that much last year, but he was here watching and competing against Tyler Kulcsar every day, and now it’s [Aroh’s] turn to step into the role, and he’s really well prepared because he’s seen what [Kulcsar] did on a daily basis and he can apply those same habits and is prepared to take that mantle. Now, [first-year] midfielder Aidan Welsh comes along and pushes Calvin.”

Junior midfielders Zach Trevorrow, Gavin Tasker and Zach Lane have been starting on the wings since their first season on the team, so it will be no surprise to see them in the starting lineup. Tasker started all 19 games that he played last season, while Lane started 20 out of 21.

“Gavin Tasker has shown a lot of leadership especially in the wide attacking areas,” Shapiro said. “[Junior midfielders] Jack Delaney and Brett Rojas have both shown some good leadership in the forward half of the field. But I do like leadership coming from the middle; if you have defenders or central midfielders who can lead out, that’s the best way to project. This team still hasn’t found its on-field general in the way that [former defender and co-captain] Connor Coleman [LA ’18] was, and I think that’s a massive loss and a big concern for us. We need to find that identity so that we can lead positively and proactively.”

In a Sept. 1 scrimmage against Bowdoin, Tufts scored five goals in an utterly dominant performance. The match gave the underclassmen both playing time and an opportunity to demonstrate their skill ahead of their first conference match-up.

“I think they handled it very well. It is a very young squad and it was just the first nerves,” Mieth said. “The guys were getting the chinks out of the armor and straightening out the wrinkles. It’s tough being in your first collegiate game where guys are four years older than you, but they dealt with it. It’s a very promising squad.”

In the scrimmage, the Jumbos alternated between their normal 4141 formation and a 352 to get used to having more players on the attack. The shift had a positive impact in the attacking third where the ball spent most of its time during the game. It will be interesting to see how the Jumbos develop this new formation throughout the course of the season.

The Jumbos will open their fall campaign against the UMass Boston Beacons on Sept. 4 on Bello Field at 7:00 p.m.