Robbie Short

Despite only winning a single game so far this season, the Yale men’s soccer team has something to celebrate: the emergence of a talented and impactful class of freshmen.

Fifteen games into the season, freshmen constitute three of the team’s top four scorers, and have starred in crucial moments for the Bulldogs. Four in particular out of the 11-person class — midfielders Lucas Kirby ’19 and Nicky Downs ’19, forward Kyle Kenagy ’19 and defender Cameron Riach ’19 — have been rewarded with starting positions for the majority of the season.

Though the team has stumbled to a 1–13–1 record, the newcomers have made their presence felt in an immediate and decisive manner.

“Freshmen always play with a little naïveté, which can be good and bad. You play a little bit more relaxed and carefree, and you don’t worry about things as much when you’re a freshman,” head coach Kylie Stannard said. “When you’re older, you add extra pressure on yourself [because] you know that mistakes are magnified and that can hurt confidence levels. Freshmen actually brush off mistakes more easily.”

The results of this naïveté have been staggering. Kenagy, for example, scored in his collegiate debut against Sacred Heart on Sept. 4, and with three goals to his name, he leads the team in both goals scored and shots. Kenagy ranks eighth in the Ancient Eight in goals, and third among all conference freshmen.

The Orlando Park, Illinois native reached this first-year success despite missing three games due to a sprained MCL in his right knee.

“[Kenagy] has been able to put his fingerprint on things right away and rose above the rest of the team fairly early on in preseason [by bringing] great energy, work rate [and] athleticism,” Stannard said. “One of the things I want from my forwards is to be able to pressure the ball and defend as well. He did that right off the bat.”

Downs has likewise left a memorable impression on the team this season. He has been directly involved in all four of Yale’s Ivy League goals, having scored two and assisted on two more. His two goals also came at critical times — one against Harvard to give Yale a lead in his Ivy League debut, and a second against Cornell with less than 10 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Stannard described Downs as a potential candidate for Ivy League Rookie of the Year and expressed satisfaction with his development into an all-around player.

“I knew that [Downs] was going to be very good on the ball [and] one of our more technical players on the team, but he still had to learn what it takes to defend and compete at this level,” Stannard said. “I’ve been tough on him with learning what it takes to compete and battle at this level defensively — to win air battles, win tackles — and he’s getting better and better at that.”

Although less of a force on the attack, Kirby has impressed with his defensive agility in the midfield. Stannard described him as one of the most athletic players on the team and said his one-on-one defending has perhaps been the best on the squad. On a team that has struggled defensively, Kirby’s ability to lock down on the opposition has been a welcome addition.

At the defensive end, it has been Riach who has stepped up. After center back and two-year starter Henry Flugstad-Clarke ’17 tore his ACL one month before the start of this season, Riach has assumed that position in the starting 11.

Riach’s impact in the backline has been bolstered, especially recently, by noteworthy finishes on set pieces. In the team’s last two Ivy matches, he has scored two headers, one off of a corner kick and another off of a free kick. As a result, he was named to the Ivy League Honor Roll two weeks in a row.

Riach credits his time at Everton FC, a premier soccer team based in Liverpool, with preparing him for the demands of college soccer. The defender spent a month with the renowned English club’s U-16 program in 2012.

“[My time at Everton FC] helped me prepare for the college game because I feel confident in my technical ability as well as my tactical ability,” Riach said. “I really think without that experience I wouldn’t have accumulated as much knowledge as I have for the game right now.”

While the Yale program’s track record may not seem particularly impressive to potential recruits — Yale has not finished higher than fourth in the Ivy League since 2005 — the team’s recent play did not dissuade the young Elis from coming to New Haven. But for the five freshmen interviewed, Yale’s reputation as a top-notch academic institution outweighed any athletic considerations, although Riach was quick to note that this did not diminish their commitment to the soccer program.

“Everyone’s here for an education. But at the same time, everyone is incredibly, incredibly committed to the athletics. We train virtually every day of the week and we’re physically exhausted every day of the week,” Riach said. “So it’s not as though, we’re not focused on the athletics, we are — it’s just that we also understand we need an education.”

None of the players interviewed came in search of only soccer success. Instead, it was the Yale community and personal ties that drew them to New Haven.

Kenagy said the allure was not the team’s record, but the team itself. The forward felt immediately welcomed by the older members of the team, and could see that they respected and looked out for one another. Riach indicated that part of the draw was staying in New England. As a Weston, Connecticut resident, he said he felt most comfortable on the East Coast.

For Kirby, it was a family legacy. As the child of two alums, Kirby said he grew to love the University before he even considered applying for college, making his decision when the time came a natural one. And Downs said familial connections also played a considerable role. With family in New Haven, Yale was an ideal place for him to continue his education and soccer career, he said.

Some players said it was Yale’s lack of success that played a role in convincing them to attend the University and join the Elis on the field. Kirby echoed Stannard’s goals, which he shared in a Oct. 8 article in the News, including a desire to help “make the program great again.”

“The mind-set I had was that it’s going to be an exciting process, maybe a hard one, maybe a long one, but nonetheless exciting, to try to advance this program and really bring it up to be one of the top teams in the Ivy League and then maybe even competitors for a national championship eventually,” Kirby said.

In a similar vein, Downs said that in coming to Yale, he knew he had the opportunity to join a program that looked to rebuild and grow during his time here.

The group’s collective energy, commitment and excitement have inspired the upperclassmen on the team. Goalkeeper Ryan Simpson ’17, whose role was filled by first-year goalie Kees Schipper ’19 for seven games while Simpson recovered from a right quadriceps injury, described the freshmen as resilient, hard-working and “very coachable,” but also said that coaching has worked both ways.

“We’ve also learned a lot from them because they’ve brought the talent that they had from high school to hit the ground running when they came out here, so I give them a lot of credit for taking it as is,” Simpson said. “They’ve all been [put] in different positions, asked to do very different things and take on a lot of responsibility, but they’ve responded very well to it.”

Part of their transitional success must be attributed to the arrival of Stannard at the end of last season, which forced all players, not just the new additions, to adapt to a new coaching style.

In a way, the freshmen were at an advantage in that they had no preconceived notions of what it is like to play soccer at Yale.

“[Our transition] was definitely easier because usually everyone’s already comfortable with each other, and there is no transition phase for the sophomores, juniors, seniors and the coach,” forward Tilman Bartelsmeyer ’19, who has seen playing time in three games this season, said. “[This season], everyone was coming into a transition, so it’s definitely easier as a freshman.”

Still, the young core must continue to improve if the Elis hope to compete for an Ivy League crown in the coming years. Kirby predicted that once the young core of the team gained enough experience both playing in the Ivy League and alongside the new coaching staff, the team would see conference results much improved from this year’s 0–4–1 league record.

“It takes a while for things to click, and we’re still waiting for that to happen,” Kirby said.

With only two matches left in the season, the results Yale’s newest crop of freshmen is looking forward to may not come for at least another year, but the future looks bright.

The Bulldogs will take the pitch Friday night at Reese Stadium against Brown in the team’s final home game of the year, with kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m.