Goal-Oriented and Going For It: Men’s Soccer Strives For Excellence

After last season’s breakthrough run of success, which included winning the MAAC Championship tournament for the first time since 2005, men’s soccer starts anew in 2022 facing a new set of challenges largely created by roster turnover. With roughly half of the roster being made up of new faces, the Red Foxes have returned to the pitch with only part of their championship core still intact, with the rest of the roster consisting of freshmen and transfers.

Gone from last year’s roster are players such as forward Stefan Copetti, who transferred to the University of Maryland after leading the team in goals scored (9) and points (21). All told, the team lost their top three goal-scorers from a year ago in addition to losing a valuable defender in Justin Scharf, who was second in minutes played in 2021.

Despite the changes in personnel, the players and coaching staff alike have expressed a high level of confidence when asked about their team’s chances this season. Head Coach Matt Viggiano, who enters his 16th season at the helm, emphasized the importance of establishing a consistent winning culture, while also referencing his team’s existing core and new additions as reasons for why they can continue to succeed.

“Obviously, the transfer portal took some guys from us, and at the same time, it allowed us to add some pieces that, in fairness, if we probably didn’t win [the MAAC championship], we probably would not have gotten. So between that and impact freshmen coming in, I think we have a nice mix of guys, and then obviously we have a solid core returning,” said Viggiano. 

“And when you can return the two-time goalkeeper of the year (Samuel Ilin), and then right up the middle, you’ve got Henrique Cruz, who obviously is an all-region player, first team all-conference. Skylar Conway’s back in the middle of the park. We have Demarre Mountoute, who is a returner at center-back who is all-conference and on the tournament team. We have experience and guys back, so we’re kind of just able to augment the roster more than anything.”

As Viggiano mentions, one of the returning players key to the Red Foxes’ success this season is senior defender Henrique Cruz, who was a First Team All-MAAC recipient a year ago. Cruz was fourth on last year’s team in minutes played and fifth on the team in points, cementing his status as a prime holdover from 2021, in addition to making him a strong candidate to fill the void left by some of the departing players. 

The responsibility to step up for the team certainly presents Cruz with an exciting challenge, yet he is unphased by it; after all, he’s been faced with adversity from the very start of his collegiate soccer career. Cruz originally transferred to Marist from the University of Akron, where he underwent multiple surgeries over a two year span.

At the time, he knew transferring to Marist would be a challenge in and of itself, but he ultimately felt his personal goal of winning was aligned with the team’s goals. That, he says, along with some trust and confidence in his abilities from the coaching staff, allowed him to play at his best and rise to the occasion. It’s no surprise then he believes his team will similarly be able to overcome any adversity they may face in spite of the roster turnover.

“For this year, which we have 13 new guys, half of the team is new, it’s gonna be, again, a new challenge,” said Cruz. “We had a lot of time, especially in preseason, to hang with each other, so I believe we have everything to go and win the MAAC or go even bigger.”

Cruz did recognize that pressure does exist on the team to perform this season while simultaneously expressing confidence that his team will be equipped to meet these goals. He cited a number of factors behind his mindset, particularly the talent which was added to the roster, as well as the team’s “healthy” culture, which allowed them to quickly turn the page from their recent 1-1 draw with Colgate after ceding the game-tying goal in the game’s waning moments.

“There [are] bigger expectations from the school on us, from the coaches on us, even for us because we know we have a really good team again, we know we’re… I would say the best team in the MAAC again, so it’s hard sometimes when you know you’ve got to win every game… Sometimes you have to deal with some kind of pressure, and for me it’s fine, soccer is all about dealing with pressure and expectations,” said Cruz.

Echoing his sentiments was graduate student goalkeeper Samuel Ilin, whose return to the team is crucial to any hopes the Red Foxes have in repeating as MAAC champions. Ilin, who was the 2021 MAAC Goalkeeper of the Year, expressed alignment with Cruz and his fellow teammates on the culture being set and the goals being established for this season.

“I think that myself, alongside Henrique and Liam [Salmon], being the three captains, our goal this year, but also throughout the preseason was really developing a new culture and standard for the team itself,” said Ilin. “We lost more than half of our players and we actually added maybe 14, 15 new guys, so really it was just focusing on the preseason and creating an environment where everyone feels special, but also as an asset to the team itself… but I think that this year, we have so much depth, and the responsibility of trying to get everybody in on the same page, feel like a family, it’s gonna go a long way.”

Ilin also expressed some loftier goals for this season apart from maintaining the culture and repeating as MAAC champions – he hopes to see his team make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament, where he has been stuck twice as a player, as well as see the program garner more recognition on a national level.

Despite these tall aspirations, he knows that the team must start small by implementing a proper routine at each practice. He expressed the importance of maintaining a balance between the jovial environment he and his teammates have established before practice begins, to the more focused environment that takes hold once the coaches enter the fray.

“Once that whistle is blown from our coach and we have to get straight into it, we know what we’re working towards, and the mentality just shifts,” said Ilin. “So we’re able to go from, we’re goofing around, we’re having fun, but also we’re here for a common goal, and that is to go all the way.”

As for the team’s on-field performance thus far, the results have been trending in the right direction according to Viggiano. He believes that the 2-0 final score of the team’s opening win over Howard “doesn’t reflect our dominance in some respects,” while also readily admitting that his team was slightly outplayed by Colgate in the second half of the 1-1 draw. 

He knows that his team must continue to improve their performance in the offensive third, but is confident and hopeful that his players will make the necessary improvements to take their performance to the next level.

“I think it does take a little while to get comfortable and on the same page as everybody because we do have some new pieces, especially going forward,” said Viggiano. “I think in the next few weeks, it’ll start to come together, and then you hope to be firing on all cylinders come September 28th, when we open up against St. Peter’s in the MAAC.”

For the Red Foxes, the potential for another very successful season is certainly there. Now that the team’s roster and goals have been set, there’s only one thing left to do: focus on preparing for and winning each game, one game at a time.

Edited by Andrew Hard

Photo from Marist Athletics

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