Allowing just 0.94 goals per game, Penn men’s soccer was close to watertight on the defensive end last season.
“With last year’s group, we felt it was necessary to create an identity, a value of not giving goals up,” coach Brian Gill said.
That identity, according to senior midfielder Brandon Bartel, was made possible through hard work on and off the pitch.
“We spent a ton of time watching film and working on our defensive shape in practice,” he said. “Our defending was proactive, not reactionary, and [this allowed us] to get into [the right] spots before anything really happens.”
Despite managing seven shutouts over the course of the season, a number only bettered by Ivy League champions Princeton, the Quakers struggled to put the ball in the net themselves. This was evident through the team’s meager 0.75 average goals per game, one-third of which came from set pieces. The team's leading scorer? Alex Touche, a 6'4" defenseman.
Gill, who is entering his second season as Penn's head coach, noted improvement from his players on the offensive end in the time since he started as coach.
“Last year we created a good amount of chances, but could have capitalized more on them,” he said. “[This offseason] I feel like we got a little bit more dynamic on the attacking side of the ball. A lot of that has to do with [them] being a year older, and having gone through training repetition.”
Bartel, who last season led the Ancient Eight with six assists, also cites better cohesion among the attacking unit.
“We’ve really improved our movement off the ball and finding those forward passes,” he said. “Hopefully we start to pick up some more goals through that.”
This Friday, the Quakers will get their first chance to show off their newfound offensive firepower in a road matchup against Monmouth. However, Gill maintains that his team will continue to embody his defensive ideals.
“Putting balls in the back of the net does not mean that we become less of what we were [defensively] last year,” he said.
This marks the third consecutive season in which Penn has kicked its season off against the Hawks. In last year’s match, the Quakers were able to secure a 3-2 overtime victory.
“With the preseason games [Monmouth has] played, we're a little bit behind in terms of having our game legs under us,” Gill said. “But it’s a great opportunity for us to go on the road and test our mettle against a good team that has had NCAA success in their history.”
Having welcomed a relatively large freshman class of eight onto the team, Gill remains tight-lipped over whether he will throw them straight into the fold. However, he noted his team selection will be based on ability rather than age or experience.
“They’re talented guys with a [great] mentality and willingness to learn,” Gill said of the newcomers. “When a player demonstrates that he’s ready to get on the field, that’s really how [I pick my team].”
Besides the trio of Kai Lammers, Jack Rosener, and Alex Kades, goalie Nick Christoffersen could also be in line for significant playing time. Christoffersen is in a battle with sophomore Dane Jacomen for the starting role in net after the graduation of both Scott Forbes and backup Etan Mabourakh.
When asked about his season goals for the team, Gill emphasized the need for his side to stick to modest and achievable targets.
“Winning a championship, going to the NCAA tournament, that would define success for sure,” he said. “But building a confidence within our locker room that we can go out and win every game is my most important mission. [By] keeping the training field as competitive as it can be every single day, hopefully that will breed a level of success.”
Bartel echoes his coach on the importance of staying grounded.
“We’re trying to take it a game at a time, and to continue to make strides, continue to build. We just want to be playing our best football by the time the [Ivy League season] comes by.”
If the Red and Blue’s offense can catch up with their stellar defense — no small feat — they will certainly create some noise this season. Their first test: on the road, against a familiar Monmouth side.