The men’s soccer team lost key offensive threats this past offseason, but its last lines of defense also received a significant blow. But compared to the offense, the transition to new blood and roles defensively has been fairly smooth.
Center back Ronnie Shaban played in all but one Columbia match in his four years, while fellow defender Jesse Vella played in every game in his junior and senior seasons. Both graduated last year, along with starting goalkeeper Alex Aurrichio and his backup, Zach Glubiak. Defender Nick Faber, who regularly came off the bench and occasionally started, also graduated.
“That’s the majority of the defense there,” senior defender Brendan O’Hearn said. “We’ve had to change, definitely, with the attributes the new guys bring in.”
Freshmen Bryce Terrill and Antonio Matarazzo were starters from the first game and have played both defense and midfield, as has sophomore Jack Gagné. Junior David Westlake missed most of last season with an injury, but has come back to be a frequent player in the back four for Columbia. O’Hearn and fellow senior fullback Ifiok Akpandak, who were already playing quite a bit, have also stepped into larger roles.
“It’s obviously difficult, adjusting to a new position [midfield] that I’m not used to,” Gagné said last month. “There are bits and pieces that I have to get used to on the go.”
He also noted that while in the early going he tried to play within his means, he hoped that as he became more comfortable, he would be able to be more aggressive. The playing time has paid off, as Gagné scored the winning goal against Penn on Saturday.
Gaining experience was important, and games like the nonconference draw against Providence earlier this week provide a chance for players to get more time on the field in the Lions’ system as the team looks to avoid taking steps back despite losing familiar faces.
“Offensively, you start with your goalkeeper, and defensively, you start with your striker,” Lions head coach Kevin Anderson said. “Our focus is performance, individual performance that fits into a collective team tactical approach to the game. That’s our focus. It’s always been our focus. It’s always going to be our focus.”
“We have confidence in the guys on our team.”
The transition to new players has been just as successful in net. With Aurrichio and Glubiak gone, junior Michael Attal was the only returning goalie, and he had only one career start coming into this season. But he and rookie Kyle Jackson have taken the reins, with impressive results. Although the Lions are allowing more shots per game than last year, the team’s goals against average has decreased. Attal and Jackson have combined for the Ivy League’s second-best save percentage.
In addition to Attal and Jackson’s aptitude for getting in front of the ball, their different skill sets, as compared to Aurrichio, help the Light Blue defense with ball control.
“Aurrichio is big and huge, so he can come out and catch all the balls, that sort of thing—although he couldn’t really play with his feet as much,” O’Hearn said. “The keepers now that we have, we can play it back to them and they can clear it.”
The team’s back line will be in transition once again next year, since seniors O’Hearn, Akpandak, Young, and Quentin Grigsby will graduate. The team has been through this before, though, and has even improved in the Ivy standings in each year of Anderson’s tenure.
“That’s not about me, that’s about kids,” Anderson said of the team’s consistent improvement. “It’s about their development and their performance and the opportunity and selection that we get from our athletic department to bring certain players in. It’s a team concept, and credit goes to the players.”