By Chris Mackowiak
When: October 19 at 3:30 pm
Where: SU Soccer Complex
How to Watch: Online via the Sea Gull Sports Network
As the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) playoffs approach, the matches become more and more important with the Salisbury University men’s soccer team currently sitting in fifth place overall. Next match on the schedule is against Christopher Newport (CNU). Rivalry, drama, and physicality will all make their mark on Wednesday afternoon at the SU Soccer Complex.
The match will have a large impact on the CAC playoff standings. Currently, Salisbury sits in fifth place with nine points, seven points behind CNU in first place with 16 points.
Salisbury University (6-6-1, 3-3 CAC)
The Sea Gulls fly into this match with new energy in their wings. After a historic four-match losing streak, Salisbury bounced back recently to win their last two matches (2-0 vs. Marymount (Va.); 3-0 vs. Frostburg State). With the latest results, the Sea Gulls seem to be peaking at just the right moment alongside the return of a few players from injury.
With injuries plaguing senior forward Leslie Umunna and both senior goalkeepers Rob Fiackos and Dan Brennan among others, the season has been unlucky for Salisbury. Now with all 29 players on roster back and healthy, SU head coach Alex Hargrove has plenty of options on a deep team ready to defend their 2015 CAC Championship.
During their four-match losing streak, chemistry and offensive productions were down for the Sea Gulls. With the loss of Umunna up top, the offense switched their strategy by utilizing more speed. Speed is a unique ability that Salisbury possesses, but unfortunately the key to the offense is having that distributor as the forward.
The stats display a stark contrast in production with Umunna in the starting 11. When Umunna is starting, the Sea Gulls have a record of 4-0-1, they scored 16 of their 23 team goals and they also only gave up one goal. Salisbury has played 13 matches this season, and Umunna has only been healthy enough to start in five of them.
The uptick in offense is evident, especially with Umunna’s ability to distribute the ball to the wingers. Senior winger Kendrick Michel scored two goals in the win over Frostburg State after not seeing a single point so far this season. Defenders keying into Umunna also free up skillful starters like freshmen midfielder Dolph Hegewisch, who leads the team with six goals and 15 points.
Hegewisch joins sophomore midfielder Daniel Kim and senior midfielder Brad Martinelli as the central “triangle” in Salisbury’s 4-1-4-1 formation. The group will be key in disrupting a CNU midfield core that includes four players that have each started every match this season.
“It’s going to be about reading the game well and making sure [the midfielders] are quickly finding their marks out of possession. When we get the ball, trying to find their feet early to let those guys dictate the attack,” Hargrove said.
On the defensive side, the Sea Gulls have not missed a beat after two-straight shutouts. With four shutouts and a 0.63 goals-against-average, Fiackos has taken over in the goal. With Brennan backing him up as second string currently, the goalkeeping spot is one of the most stable positions on the team. Junior left back Nick Carrington took CAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after his two goals this past week alongside an excellent defensive effort.
“I feel good. We’re playing as well as we did all season. We’re finding the back of the net. We’re on the rise at the right time right now. We’re hoping to see that continue on home soil,” Hargrove said.
Christopher Newport University (12-2-1, 5-0-1 CAC)
As a soccer fan, the only thing better than seeing the best defense in the CAC (Salisbury) is seeing them face the best offense, which is Christopher Newport. The Captains average three goals per game as compared to Salisbury’s 1.77.
When looking at the Captains’ typical starting lineup, there is no wonder how they get that much production. The team uses four midfielders, all of which have started all 15 matches this season. If there is one major contrast between Salisbury and CNU, it is the consistency and chemistry that the Captains have worked with all season while Salisbury has dealt with injuries.
The large bonus for the CNU attack is that it does not focus on one individual. It is diversified and spread out. Four different Captains are in double figures for points on the season. The players are spread through the wings, in the central midfield, and up top.
The chemistry comes out in the chances created for CNU. The team averages 20.3 shots per game, which is best in the CAC. The Captains like to attack, attack and attack some more. While they attack, the ball stays away from their defense and sophomore goalkeeper Zach Pedini.
Pedini leads a defense that gives up 1.06 goals per game alongside only allowing 15 goals all season. Salisbury may have the best defense on paper, but the statistics are not that far off. The Sea Gulls allow 0.82 goals per game alongside giving up 11 goals this season.
The main goal of Christopher Newport is to outscore their opponents. Salisbury is the best defense in conference that they have faced all season. Look for the Captains to start attacking early and often to set the tone of the match.
CNU will try to utilize possession as often as possible instead of hunkering down for a draw on the road. The Sea Gulls’ defense is designed to be compact and flexible. Hargrove and his players will welcome attacks in toward the box.
The Captains’ largest worry entering the match will be Salisbury’s transition attack. Salisbury’s formation is based on playing out of the back line to swing the ball downfield to the wingers and ultimately the center attacking midfielders and forward in the box.
“I think it comes down to trying to prioritize keeping the ball and keeping it off their feet. We look to stretch them. We’ve had a lot of success getting in behind teams in the last few games,” Hargrove said.
Based on the offensive power of Salisbury against both Marymount and Frostburg State, the Sea Gulls are finally clicking and CNU could be in for a nail biter in Salisbury Wednesday afternoon.