After last season’s painful eighth-place finish in the Ivy League, the men’s soccer team has nowhere to go but up.

But the Elis, who boast 18 returning players and will benefit from the return of one of their top offensive weapons, plan to make more than just a small jump in the standings.

If the Bulldogs can return to the form they were in early last season, when they defeated such nationally-ranked teams as the University of Rhode Island and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, they have a legitimate shot at being among the Ivy League’s best.

Last year’s 1-5-1 Ivy record is somewhat misleading, as nearly all of Yale’s Ivy losses — and most of their other losses as well — were by only one goal.

“We played well in some games last year and still lost them,” said head coach Brian Tompkins, who is in his eighth year of coaching the Elis.

However, with the amount of veterans returning to the field this year, the Bulldogs hope to be a more mature and confident squad in close games.

“Those experiences, as unpleasant as they were, we have to look at as having some value in preparing us for this year,” Tompkins said.

One major bonus for the Bulldogs, who struggled offensively last year, is that two of the team’s most prolific scorers are back in top form. Two-time All-Ivy forward Jay Alberts ’04, who was Yale’s first Ivy League Rookie of the Year, returns after a season-long hiatus due to mononucleosis. Alberts wasted no time in proving his value as he scored Yale’s only goal in the team’s first scrimmage.

“Having Jay back is an unbelievable bonus,” said captain Stu Yingst ’03. “He is the best player in the Ivy League.”

In addition, Lindsey Williams ’05 is healthy again after missing most of the second half of last season. The Elis had lost only one of their first eight games before Williams went down, but proceeded to lose eight of the next nine without the scoring touch that earned him honorable mention All-Ivy recognition.

Williams’ effectiveness is due in part to his speed , which is certainly one of the strengths of the forward line as a whole this season. The trio of Alberts, Williams, and forward Justin Burton ’03 is one of the fastest the Elis have had in years.

“We are very quick and fast up top,” Alberts said. “The key to playing well this year is playing fast out of the back and through the midfield, getting the ball to the open man on the opposite side of the field.”

This will be accomplished with the help of a veteran midfield anchored by captain Stu Yingst ’03, who battled through a painful knee injury last year to earn himself his third All-Ivy selection. Yingst is joined by second-year players Ryan Raybould and Andrew Dealy, both of whom made big impacts in their rookie seasons.

Raybould, who tallied seven points last season, has an eye for making key cross-field passes that often lead to goal opportunities for the Elis. Yingst noted that the sophomore was dangerous on his his free kicks in the spring season.

Meanwhile, Dealy’s penchant for scoring made him the team leader in scoring and earned him an All-Ivy honorable mention.

“We’ll look for [Dealy] to not just be a provider of scoring opportunities but a guy who can finish some of them,” Tompkins said.

Steve Gibbons ’03, who scored the game-winning goal last season against nationally ranked URI, will be a fast midfield presence as well.

Yale’s only hole in the lineup due to graduation is in the center back position, where former captain Brian Lavin ’02 anchored the defense for three years.

However, defender Brian Roberts ’04, last year’s Yale-Fila Classic MVP, will more than make up for the loss, as he is a dynamic, quick and aggressive force in the backfield.

“The defense looks pretty solid, hopefully some people can step up and play well and stay healthy,” Roberts said. “I think we’re very intelligent in the back, making smart decisions and having good possessions.”

One of the people responsible for the smart decision-making is Luke Rona ’04, whose play-making and patience earned him a huge increase in playing time last season. Rona will accompany Roberts in the center.

They are flanked by both a veteran and a newcomer, the former being defensive staple Colin Stirrat ’03, a consistent presence on the defensive sideline since his freshman year. On the other side, rookie Ryan Morrissey ’06 will hope to make up for the loss of Jon Skalecki ’05, who injured his knee last spring after a promising freshman season.

After last season’s goaltender chaos — in which both starter Geoff Hollington ’04 and backup Russ Stroud ’04 sustained season-ending injuries and had to be replaced by two non-roster players — the Elis hope to have more stability at the position.

Both Hollington and Stroud are back this season, and they are joined by rookie Matt Aleksinas ’05 in what should prove to be a quick and capable, although still relatively inexperienced, trio of options in net.

Despite the return of several key players this season and the addition of talented freshmen, the Elis will still have to contend with top Ivy League talents such as Brown, who has dropped only one Ivy contest in the last two seasons.

Princeton remains the team to beat in the league. But the Tigers, who advanced to the second round of the NCAA after an Ivy berth over Brown in a tiebreaker, will be hurt by the loss of three of its All-Ivy seniors.

For the Bulldogs, however, one of the most important things will be to keep focus against the middle of the Ivy League pack and make sure to pick up the winnable league games, especially early on in the season.

This ought not to be a problem, however, because the seasoned veterans on the team know how it feels to win –Êand lose– big games.

“The senior class was the last group to go to the NCAA tournament [where Yale beat Rutgers in the first round in overtime] as freshmen,” Tompkins said. “They’ve experienced the highs and lows of college soccer.”