During the 2018 season, Penn men's soccer developed a defensive identity by conceding just 15 goals in 16 matches, good for third in the Ivy League. Despite the strong defensive performance, the Quakers struggled mightily on the other end of the pitch, finding the back of the net only 12 times.
As he enters his second year at the helm of the men's soccer program after taking over for now-Senior Associate Athletic Director Rudy Fuller, coach Brian Gill is hopeful that the Red and Blue can open things up offensively while remaining characteristically airtight in their defensive third.
That job is complicated by Gill's welcoming of an eight-member freshman class that will try to integrate itself into both the offensive and defensive systems.
"We're trying to maintain that defensive discipline while getting the guys more comfortable with making more progress on the offensive side of the ball," Gill said. "To be fair to them, I think we did a good amount of that in the spring for this returning group of guys, and now [we're] starting to bring some of these younger guys into the fold, trying to see what kind of impacts those guys can make to help us ultimately take the next step in the program."
Gill clarified that the effort to build comfort for his players when they attack opposing defenses isn't the result of lackluster ball skills, but rather an attempt to help his players be sufficiently confident and experienced to make good choices with the ball while dealing with college soccer's heightened speed and intensity.
"It doesn't necessarily mean more technical ability, although we're adding another group of guys that we feel are highly capable, but our definition of comfort really comes back to being more capable decision-makers with the ball," Gill said. "That will impact us in a way where we can take more advantage of — and get higher reward from — some of our opportunities in either the middle third to the final third or the final third itself."
Penn is coming off a year that featured five scoreless draws in addition to two one-goal losses. Gill recognizes that his team often relied on its defense to stay in games and remain competitive before finding itself unable to capitalize on game-winning chances.
While the Quakers take some comfort from the fact that they were typically a competitive opponent, the piling up of draws and tight losses wasn't an enjoyable process to endure.
"Last year, I think it was just sort of draining," junior defender Alex Touche said. "Once you have a few games where you don't get goals and are under pressure, everyone gets in our heads and it's just tough. You overthink everything."
That said, Touche thinks that early team practices are signaling a possible uptick in goal-scoring.
"Based on training last year, we'd come in like, 'Hey, we need goals, nil-nil [result],'" Touche said. "This year, it's not like that. In practice — just last week we had one — [freshman defender Jack] Rosener finished practice with a great goal [and] we all come in hyped about the good goal to finish, so there's definitely more days like that."
Touche appreciates the excitement and energy that even goals from intrasquad scrimmages can infuse in the team. While the Red and Blue are focusing on becoming more dangerous as an attacking group, though, they're also aware that last season's defensive sturdiness won't simply roll over to the upcoming year.
Gill explained that the 2018 Quakers' defensive-minded approach came in response to years of conceding more goals than he thought to be acceptable. Having established what for at least one season looked to be a revived defensive scheme, he now wants to put his players in positions where they can display both sound decision-making and technical prowess.
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