Final Third On The MAAC Pitch: Seeding Out Personal Goals

With the MAAC regular season coming to an end, the teams with the best records are Monmouth University — clinched regular season title(1), Rider, Iona College and Marist. Two takeaways from those four is Monmouth, who are the defending conference champions, and Quinnipiac not seeding at the top.

The former is self-explanatory, as for the latter, the simple reason is that Cesar Markovic, Siena head soccer coach, told “The Quadrangle” this a few weeks ago:

“The MAAC is up for grabs. You have your usual suspects but you also have some teams that can surprise people from the bottom. The preseason poll is worthless, it doesn’t mean anything. The first or second conference games don’t exactly decide everything. If you check back around game five or six, that’s when you really start to see who’s shaping up and what’s happening.”

Dahrius Waldron, Manhattan defenseman, tries to dribble around Matt Taylor, Quinnipiac midfielder. Photo taken by Kevin Fuhrmann.

He was right. An example that backs up what he said is the as mentioned Quinnipiac. It was last year’s regular season champions. This year, it hadn’t won a game until it beat Manhattan 2-0 on Oct. 14. A position its head coach, Eric Da Costa, said it isn’t “accustomed to go through.” The last time it wasn’t one of the top seeds this far into a season was ’12 when it went 8-7-2, 1-6 MAAC.

“We’ve been plugging away for a few months now, it hasn’t been easy for us,” he said. “… We’re not accustomed to go through what we’re going through. … There’s a mixture of a few factors. We’ve been steadily having some consistent success since ’12. College soccer is cyclical. There’s always a year or two there where you sort of have to reload and retool. And I’m not sure that’s exactly where we’re at yet, but it’s been one of those years in terms of results. … We’ve made some uncharacteristic mistakes, and we’ve dropped games because of that. It’s a new season, year. The pressure maybe got to the boys a little bit and the anxiety of chasing that result and it not coming as soon as they’d like set in as well.”

Despite the loss to Quinnipiac and then Rider, 3-1, three days later on Oct. 17. Manhattan is a team near the bottom of the conference seeding that could’ve vied for one of the top spots, as it floated in the middle throughout most of the season. That all depended on if they were able to score enough goals, co-captain Alex Shackley said.

In Manhattan’s 13 games, it has notched 11 goals — four by way of Shackley. What kept it in the conversation is the play of R.J. Noll, who has quietly posted a solid 1.31 goals against average.

“The past few games we’ve begun to start picking it up a little bit — find our style of play — but we’re lacking goals right now,” Shackley said after being shutout by Quinnipiac. “We’ve got to either change something, work harder in training on finishing or something. We can’t keep playing games without scoring goals.”

When asked about why it was such a struggle to convert on created; corner; and in box cross goal chances this season, Shackley went on and said, “To be honest, I’m not sure at the moment.” He did, however, offer two possible solutions: 1) putting someone new upfront; 2) new formation.

He amended his above statements slightly after losing to Monmouth last Wednesday, 2-1,(2) that its goal scoring chances were what he called “half-chances,” which are now turning into “better shots on goal…so we’re improving in that stance but still a lot to work on.”

He saw something, at least for himself, because last Saturday Manhattan scored three goals on senior day against Rider. Two of which he placed in the back of the net. He told “The Quadrangle” after that game, “We finally got some goals today. … Hopefully, we’re peaking at the right time.”

Shackley prepares drop a lob pass inside the box. Photo taken by Kevin Fuhrmann.
Shackley prepares drop a lob pass inside the box. Photo taken by Kevin Fuhrmann.

When Manhattan matched up against Monmouth, it forced a double-overtime against the best team in the conference and arguably the best goalie in the league in Eric Klenofsky, who’s putting up another [insert accolade here] type of seasons. He has recorded a 0.84 GAA, seven shutouts, his 29th career win — tied for third all-time in the MAAC with Iona’s Gianni Spiniello and earned three Wilson defensive player of the week honors. At the start of the season, he told “The Quadrangle” the following:

“I was privileged to have the center backs that I did last year and my freshman year. They’re the best center backs I’ve played with. You can read into any accolades, but I highly doubt I’d get them without those two center backs. This year we have two new guys in center defense, so this year you’ll get a good gage at how good I really am.”

When asked to respond to his own humbled answer, he remained steadfast.

“The analytics do tell a lot with my stats,” he said, “but the thing that I’m most proud of is our ability to win games. Losing two, three, four very influential seniors is very hard to come back from, especially if they’re two centerbacks. We lost two centerbacks and we’re putting in a sophomore that has never really played before and a right-back/center midfielder, who are both undersized, to be completely honest. We might have the smallest back four in the country, and you would never because they have no idea how tall they are because they battle with the best of them. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing against a 6 foot 6 inch forward from Villanova, Jassiem [Wahtuse] and Joey [Gudzak], they have no clue that they’re only 6 foot because they were never single headed. So I’m very privileged once again to have these two guys that mesh, compliment with each other well.”

As for the MAAC, Klenofsky and Da Costa agree that it doesn’t matter if the team on one side is the No. 1 seed, in the case of Monmouth, and on the other the bottom of the conference, in the case of Quinnipiac. The season is “unpredictable” and the matches are “an absolute fight.”

“Pretty much every game is a dog-fight, doesn’t matter who you are– whether we’re playing Quinnipiac, who won their first game last week, or Marist, who’s right on our tail,” Klenofsky said. “Once you get in conference it’s just an absolute fight, it’s a battle. Every single game. And we’ve seen that when we went to Fairfield on [Oct. 17]. I thought we deserved three points, but that being said their goalie Matt Turner had an amazing day, and Fairfield was just not going to give into us that easily. They scrapped, battled and got the result. That’s what it’s like in every single MAAC game.”

“It’s been wide-open,” Da Costa said. “… Teams play with a little less inhibition and really get after it, not to say that the results don’t matter. They certainly do. You’ve seen a lot of different results in the league this year. Some of the projected top teams losing to teams that weren’t projected to be up top. We’ve seen a lot of those games. Players are playing free, coaches are coaching with less pressure and trying out some new things. It’s been unpredictable would be a way to categorize it this year.”

(1) Monmouth is the No. 1 seed and conference champs now but it started off 0-3 — losses coming to UMass Lowell, 1-0; Providence, 2-0; Hartford, 3-1. It’s certainly righted the ship, as the cliché goes. “We started out rough, and there was a turning point,” Klenofsky said. “We started with a lot of new faces and we were trying out trying some systems that weren’t necessarily us, we had to try them just to find out what worked. We eventually found out the right system and personnel on the field that led to success– we always had the talent, it was just putting everyone in the right place. Coach [Robert McCourt] has been really good with managing us and putting the guys in those right places. Once we figured out where everyone was supposed to be because of who they were then we started winning games. That’s basically been the story since the third game after the hard first games once we learned to play ours, it was just game over from there. Each game we’ve just taken them one game at a time, and that’s all we’re thinking about still. That wins championships.”
(2) Klenofsky said this about his team’s upcoming match against Manhattan: “They’re dangerous [and] very motivated. They were very close to beating us last year and the year before. So going in, I’m just saying, we’ve got to hit the ground hard because we know they’re going to hit the ground harder. It’s a wildcard. This game is a good deciding factor as to where we both end up in the conference because it’s two very good teams squaring off.” Shackley credited his team against “arguably the best goalie in the conference”: “I thought we did really well with our chances tonight. We’ve had opportunities in the past, we’ve created sort of half-chances but tonight we had better shots on goal– actually on target, tested their goalie a little bit. So we’re improving in that stance but still a lot to work on.”