The year on the calendar may be different, but not many things seem different for the men’s soccer team.
Not to say that is a bad thing; the players and coaches believe it is a strong point for the team, having so much chemistry among an almost identical roster for the last couple years.
That theory proved to be somewhat true for the team last season.
Eastern scored more goals last year than the previous year (2017), and when the Panthers hosted Summit League foe and powerhouse Denver last year (when Denver was fourth in the nation), the teams ended the game in a 0-0 tie, a huge confidence booster for Eastern.
Yet, the same result played out in the Summit League tournament last year as did in 2017, where Denver beat Eastern in the conference semifinals.
So, will anything be different for Eastern, and if so, will it bring about more favorable results?
One thing about the team, the thing that has really defined the team during head coach Kiki Lara’s time as head coach, is the defense.
Last season, freshman David Camacho and sophomore Erik Isaksson (both not on the team this year) were important links in the defensive chain that held the team together.
Edgar Mesa, a player Lara pointed out as a key figure on the team last year, is returning for his senior season as the lone returning mainstay from last year’s defensive line.
His leadership and expertise will be a commodity for the newcomers to the staple of the Eastern men’s soccer team, but the question remains on those replacing last year’s defensive starters.
During the team’s exhibition match at Valparaiso Thursday, Frank DeBry, a transfer who Lara mentioned was a standout player amongst newcomers to the team, Quinn Rechner and William Hogne, both freshmen, all got starting nods.
Senior Matheus Santos is a returning core player from last year, who, like DeBry, is listed as a hybrid defender and midfielder.
The quantity of personnel is not the question in this situation, as the team has plenty of defenders and has a defensive mentality so ingrained that it would be able to make forwards play defense well.
Rather, what has to be proven is the efficiency and quality of the defensive fortitude of this Panthers squad.
The players are ready for the season and are well-trained for their tasks as defenders, there is no doubt in this regard.
But possibly introducing three new defenders into the same line together is not something that meshes after one match, let alone one exhibition match.
One possibility, a likely one at that, is to have Santos and DeBry be a duo of defensive midfielders, while starting just three true defenders.
Having just three true defenders was a strategy used at times last year, but devoting two slots for a defensive midfielder may hinder the team’s offense, which has already been at low production the last two seasons (10 total goals in 2017, 12 in 2018).
Ideally, Santos and DeBry could take turns during the match going forward with the offense, while the other hangs back slightly with the defense, or something to that extent.
No matter who is put where in the defensive spectrum of the squad’s lineup, the new faces will have to mesh with each other quickly and well to keep the team in a favorable spot in the conference, especially if the offense does not have an outstanding year scoring-wise.
Again, the question is not if the Eastern defense will be up-to-par, but how quickly it will be one, compact unit that flows together on the pitch.
Lara already said he is confident with whoever will fill in the defensive positions, as he should be.
But even as lackluster as the Eastern offense has been in recent years, it is returning its core players for another run at the Summit League postseason.
Not only that, players like Christian Sosnowski, who led Eastern in scoring last year with three goals, and Alex Castaneda, who led Eastern in assists last season with two, are fully healthy this year after both having histories with injuries, something Lara was excited to mention.
So the offense already has its questions filled with answers that have solid backing behind them, now what remains to be solved is what this defense will look like early this year.
Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]