Last year, the men's soccer team frustrated and surprised opponent after opponent with stifling defense and timely scoring. This season, the Maroons have been challenged to prove themselves again, and this time everybody is paying attention.
The team has refused to take this season lightly and rest on last year's accomplishments, putting in some extra preseason preparation and showing more multi-dimensional play. The defense has again been largely dominant, though it has at times been a step off of last year's level of containment, which produced a school-record 11 shutouts. The offense has greatly improved, scoring only two fewer goals through 10 games than last year's season total of 25.
The offensive leap forward has been sparked in part by the team's preseason trip to Brazil. Their Brazilian opponents, known for their offensive and skillful style of play, were a good example for a Maroons team trying to be more dynamic on the attack.
Though their South American counterparts were likely not as physically strong as the Chicago players, "If you're this close," said O'Connor, measuring out a two-foot space, "it's like 15 yards to them. We noticed that and how quickly they played, how comfortable they were with the ball. That's rubbed off on our guys."
The men, known as the "Team Obrigado" for their excessive use of the Portuguese word for "thank you," built a lot of team confidence as well on their 2-1-1 trip.
"We came out with two wins and a tie against professional caliber teams, teams that are much better than any we could potentially face during our season," fourth-year forward Brian Standerfer said. "Basically, after Brazil, we knew we had the ability to get quality wins."
The difference showed immediately in the 10-0 season-opening destruction of Ripon. Fourth-year midfielder Joey Frontczak matched his career total of two tallies in that game, and repeated the feat three weeks later against St. Norbert. He has six on the season. Speedy first-year striker Eric Floyd has also stepped up with four goals and an assist so far.
Still, the team has sometimes struggled in the last 20 yards, and while the offense has shown it can blow out teams better than last year, it still needs to prove it can consistently score in tight games. The team needs more performances like the 1-0 overtime victory over 14th-ranked Dominican September 21.
Ultimately, though, the Maroons will continue to excel on defense and takes great pride in the team's four-and-counting clean sheets so far.
"Defense was and still is a big part of our team. As long as I have been around, we have been a defensive-minded team," Standerfer said. "I don't think that mindset has changed at all, but instead we are just making the better of our chances this year."
Having earned rivals' respect from last year, the Maroons know every little bit of space they can create will make a big difference.
Spotlight on: Keith Crum
Considering he obliterated the previous record of seven shutouts in a single season by four, it's hard to believe third-year Keith Crum walked onto the team last year. But his great shot-stopping skills quickly earned him the respect of his teammates, and now he heads into his second UAA go-around as one of the team's main defensive leaders.
Crum's save percentage and goals-against average are off last year's school-record marks, but those declines are indicative more of growing pains than a fluke year or having been figured out by the opposition.
"There's some huge expectations for him," head coach John O'Connor said. "There's probably some goals he would like to take back, but that's part of Keith growing as a player. He's taking some chances he may not have taken last year."
Most valuable when called on to save the one or two big shots a game the defense concedes, O'Connor says Crum has become a much more important and vocal leader in the back.