The word “warrior,” if books and movies are to be believed, conjures the image of a battle-ready, iron-clad behemoth armed to the teeth.
If you ask members of Penn men’s soccer, their more realistic version comes in the form of a 6-foot forward and Pennsylvania native named Alec Neumann.
This reputation has been well-earned over the past four seasons of Red and Blue soccer, and Neumann has emerged as the team’s undisputed leader and central offensive cog in his final season. The senior’s seven goals lead the Ivy League and, having reached that total in just 10 games played, Neumann owns the 16th best goals-per-game average among all Division I players.
This offensive prowess is not surprising, as Neumann’s prodigious attacking instinct has been proven time and time again in the past. Over the course of his first two seasons, the forward found the back of the net a combined 13 times and earned two second team All-Ivy distinctions in the process.
The true source of Neumann’s resilience, however, lies not in his achievement but in his confrontation with adversity. Last season saw Neumann, in his first season as captain, score a dismal total of two goals while the Quakers stumbled to a 3-11-2 record.
Penn’s offense as a whole was anemic and, although they were missing key pieces including co-captain Matt Poplawski, Neumann could not muster any semblance of flow in the offense that had carried the Quakers to a conference championship just two years earlier.
A definite factor was the departure of Penn legend Duke Lacroix, who is currently playing professionally for the Indy Eleven of the North American Soccer League, the United States’ second tier of soccer. After playing his first two years in a twin-forward set, Neumann has had to adapt to his role as a center forward, a lone scorer flanked by two wingers or wide-playing midfielders.
However, there’s always another side to the story. Ask Neumann and he’ll brush off any excuse for his less-than-stellar play. But, as head coach Rudy Fuller explained, the forward’s struggles were largely a result of a nagging injury. Despite his chronic pain, Neumann singlehandedly shouldered the burden of the offense simply because he had to.
“Last year, full credit to him, he was playing on one leg,” Fuller said. “He was playing with a sports hernia all season because he knew we were short on depth up front. He was our only true forward and even having him at 60 percent was better than not having anyone at all.”
His difficulties as a junior can also be explained by Penn’s lack of offensive personnel. Neumann’s greatest strength is moving off the ball, finding openings in the defense, or acting as a decoy to command the back line’s attention.
“I think that being more of a target forward, part of my job, beyond getting on the end of things and scoring goals, is linking the play and releasing the wide guys,” Neumann said. “I think we have a good group of guys, especially in the attack, that understand how we build going forward. I have to say, the balls and feeds from the other forwards and guys on the attack have particularly great this year.”
Since forwards often rely on their teammates to create scoring opportunities, the addition of fast wingers like freshman Dami Omitaomu and the development of sophomores like Jerel Blades and Gideon Metrikin has made the senior forward’s job significantly easier.
Besides an improvement in health and the personnel around him, Neumann has backed his play with increasingly forceful leadership and his mentorship of younger players has resulted in their faster-than-expected development.
Poplawski remarked that his co-captain has only one gear, and it certainly shows on the field.
“He’s one of the most steady performers in terms of effort every day,” he said. “And this year, I think he’s been more vocal. You gain more experience, learn how to talk to different guys, what motivates particular players. I think he’s done a particularly great job with that this year.”
Neumann is certainly back in form this season and is responsible for a completely revamped Penn offense that ranks in the upper echelon of the Ivy League. Fuller claims that the captain’s unbreakable work ethic and practice mentality is responsible for this return to offensive dominance.
“His work ethic and approach never changed on a weekly basis. He plowed through like a warrior,” Fuller commented. “He got healthy over the offseason and he’s feeling better than he has in a long time. That shows in his production. This is a far better reflection of what Alec Neumann is all about.”
What remains to be seen, however, is if Neumann’s resurrection will be enough to carry Penn to an Ivy League crown. Such an accomplishment would be a fitting end to the career of a player who, despite his ups and downs, has been a model of consistency.