Students across campus have finally settled down and are prepared to tackle the fall semester, and the members of the Yale men’s soccer team are no exception. The Bulldogs will embark on their 2014 campaign this afternoon when they step on the pitch for a 5 p.m. showdown with Sacred Heart University.
In hosting the Pioneers (0—2—0, 0—0—0 Northeast Conference), the Elis are seeking their first season-opening victory since 2011, when they toppled another in-state foe, Central Connecticut State University. Incidentally, that victory also came at home — a factor that captain and midfielder Conner Lachenbruch ’15 said should come into play today.
“It will be great to have the comfort of our home stadium and the support of our fans to help ease some of the nerves that naturally come up in the first game of the season,” Lachenbruch said.
Yale’s history with Sacred Heart should also allay some of the opening-game jitters, as the Bulldogs have a 6—2—2 series record against the Pioneers. In fact, Yale has not lost a matchup with the state rivals since 2009, outscoring Sacred Heart nine to three in the process.
Today’s outing is the first of eight nonconference games leading up to Yale’s first Ivy League confrontation of the year, an Oct. 4 tilt at Harvard. This de facto preseason of nonconference play presents an opportunity for the Bulldogs to fine tune each and every aspect they have been focusing on throughout the offseason.
Head coach Brian Tompkins acknowledged the importance of playing well in nonconference games — not just for results but for crucial preparation and the development of “team understanding and confidence” for Ivy League play.
“We will definitely be looking for a better start to the nonconference portion of the schedule, but our concentrated focus will be on the Ivy season,” Tompkins said. “We start league play with three straight road games, so we want to be cohesive and playing well by that time.”
Yale fields a relatively young team — only four seniors appear on the roster — so a key for the Elis will be how quickly the youthful team will be able to gel. The good news for the Elis is that many of their sophomores and juniors have already racked up a wealth of the experience on the field.
This mix of youth and experience is especially evident when evaluating Yale’s offensive firepower. The Bulldogs return four of their six leaders in points from last season, including forward Cameron Kirdzik ’17, whose 11 points were tied for best on the club.
At the other end of the field, today’s contest provides the first chance for Yale supporters and opponents alike to see how the defense performs a year removed from faltering during conference play. Defender/midfielder Pablo Espinola ’16 said that while the team’s struggles were not entirely the fault of the defense, Tompkins has still made a point of stressing solid play on the back line.
“Coach Tompkins has emphasized defending from the top,” Espinola said. “Defending is not just the job of the back six. Our whole team has to buy into defensive shape if we are to successfully turn the other team over.”
The beauty of the regular season is that a team is able to evaluate its stage of development, for better or worse. Intersquad scrimmages and game-simulating drills will no longer have to be the main teaching point for Tompkins.
“These games will give us a great opportunity to test our tactical wherewithal against two very different teams and get a measure of our potential for the season,” Tompkins said of tonight’s matchup as well as Tuesday’s scheduled opponent, Iona. “Starting the season with two wins would be a terrific confidence builder and we will be setting high expectations for our performance.”
A 2—0—0 start would certainly provide a welcome flashback for the coach, who has already announced that this season, his 19th at the helm of the Bulldogs, will be his last. Yale and Tompkins have not opened a year with two wins since 2006.
Yale will have to handle its business this afternoon first, however, to put such an opportunity in place.
The men’s game will be followed promptly at 7:30 p.m. by the women’s soccer team’s season-opener against crosstown rival Quinnipiac.