Mix of old and new brings renewed optimism for men’s soccer

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Xavier Ortega

The DePaul men’s soccer team will begin its season on Feb. 12 in an exhibition game against Concordia-Chicago.

After a long wait and speculation that there might not be a season, the DePaul men’s soccer team is eager to get the season started. 

Back in August, the Big East announced they were canceling fall sports because of concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic. Fall sports were rescheduled for spring, and for soccer, under a new format.

Placed in the Midwest division of the conference, DePaul will play Marquette, Creighton, Butler and Xavier as well four non-conference opponents.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said head coach Mark Plotkin. “I know the other guys will be too. You want to play everybody in the league, but we understand all the regulations and stipulations behind why we’re doing it the way we are this year. The fact that we even have a schedule and are going to be able to compete in Big East games this year, we’re all just really happy and excited about that.”

With the cancellation of fall sports, there was some doubt as to whether a season would take place at all — a possibility that was in the back of the minds of the players, particularly the seniors.

“I was a little bit scared there for a second we weren’t going to get a season, but [I’m] super grateful that the Big East was able to put it all together,” said senior midfielder Tim Iscra. “I know there’s certain conferences that still aren’t playing and even though we switched up our schedule a little bit, and split it in half, I’m glad that our conference was able to pivot and make it work for us, which is great.”

DePaul finished last season with an overall record of 5-9-3. It’s a record they want to improve and believe they have the capabilities to do so. One of the reasons is the crop of ten new players joining the program.

The mixture of new players with returning ones could prove to be a recipe for success. DePaul has a big roster, which has allowed the coaching staff to run different game situations during practice and help build an understanding among the group.

“Thankfully we have a big roster so we’ve been able to play a lot of big-number situations,” Plotkin said. “In the fall we got up to a lot of 8v8, 9v9 and a couple of times we got to play 11v11. So just putting them in those situations helps, and we have such a great group of older guys that have really just brought them in. It seems like these guys have been together forever already.”

The camaraderie between this group is something that both the coach and players stressed as an important factor for this season. They believe this cohesiveness will serve them well and something that they may not have had with previous rosters.

“This group is especially a lot tighter knit than the last groups,” said senior goalkeeper Drew Nuelle. “I think having this first group of new players has helped unify more than the other teams that I’ve been on. Having everyone here in that first segment of the season was super important. I think that we were able to mesh a lot better than the other team’s I’ve been on.”

The top two teams from the Midwest and East divisions will meet in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. When the preseason polls were announced, DePaul was not considered one of the favorites. Still, that does not discourage Plotkin.

The objective for this season is to be one of the top two teams, and DePaul believes they have the right mix of players and a balanced team to reach that objective.

“I think you’ll feel there’s a different excitement around the group this year,” Plotkin said, “I think what you’re going to see is a team that is really well balanced. I think we’re going to keep more goals out and we’re going to score more this year. Usually when you do both of those things that means there’s a few more in the win column.”

It’s not going to be a normal season by any stretch of the imagination. Aside from the new format, being able to handle possible postponements will be important, as well as managing the mental aspect of playing a season during a pandemic and all it entails.

“We try to take advantage of the time that we’re all together and let the guys just compete, play soccer and have fun and just let that be kind of their window to something else and get away from the world for the two hours that we’re together,” Plotkin said. “We have a really strong group of guys on our team that get along extremely well. Thankfully a lot of them are still living in the city and living together so that friendship and camaraderie is still there.”

The Blue Demons scored 17 goals last season and conceded 22 in 17 games last season. In addition to finishing with a better record, scoring more and conceding fewer is set to be both an individual as well as team goal. 

“Individually, and as a unit, keeping shutouts is super important,” Nuelle said. “If we can show that we can stop teams from scoring at all in that 90-minute time frame, I think that’ll show we’re here to compete, and on top of that, I think we have a lot more goal scorers this year, which will be a threat to teams who may not have thought that in the past.”

Scoring and defending are the two main objectives in any sport — perhaps more so in soccer where scoring is hard to come by. The Blue Demons know that averaging one goal a game, like they did last season, is not going to cut it. 

The togetherness and the mix of different backgrounds of the incoming players are some of the reasons why both the coach and players are optimistic and believe this year will be different than the last.

“As a team, Plotty hit it on the head,” Iscra said. “We want to be in the top two, and I really feel like that’s possible this year and I really think we will achieve that based on our team.”

DePaul opens its season on Feb. 12 with a non-conference game in Rockford against Concordia-Chicago.