Late summer soccer games at Rhodes Field habitually serve vivid stories. Teams grapple with capturing an amorphous early-season tenacity into a precise tool to wield. Less familiar names of the previous few seasons become enthusiastically more frequent on the loudspeakers. The squeaky bleachers and river winds feel less torturous when the weather is kind to both players and the crowd.
And although ambition may sometimes outrun match fitness so early in the season, the moments when the results prove through are electric, as Penn men’s soccer (1-0-1) proved within just the first 10 minutes of its 2022 campaign.
“We might not be that old of a group, but I think there is maturity that has happened over the last year,” coach Brian Gill said immediately following Penn’s home win against Rider. “I think part of that is a willingness and a confidence to try to get forward into the attack — and when you've lost the ball higher up the field, how quickly can you try to repress the ball and try to create those second opportunities in the attack.”
Gill guided his brigade to balance the Labor Day weekend with one win and one draw. The Quakers opened the season at home, receiving Rider (0-3) as guests to the Schuylkill-side field and knocking the Broncs to a 2-1 win. On Monday, Penn visited Temple (1-1-2) on the other side of the river, taking the city rivals to a 1-1 tie.
Under Gill, who remains undefeated in season-opener games, the Quakers are leveling the unpredictability of early-season games with drive — filling in weaknesses with the confidence to do greater, and working through the season until precision comes to mend the rest.
“Our last season was a little rough, but this year we’re all hungry,” junior midfielder Mateo Zazueta reflected following the Rider win — just his second time starting for Penn — to which he contributed the necessary difference for the victory. “You can see it in going for those second balls — like, even inside the box, it’s just our mentality to win the ball whenever we can.”
Zazueta’s goal occurred just three minutes after the first score, all within the first 10 minutes of the match. Sophomore defender Leo Burney’s fifth-minute conversion of a deflected free kick reminded the crowds of his immense season as a freshman in 2021. The Monday after the weekend, Burney’s own deflected shot on goal was rescued by senior midfielder Nick Schimbeno into his first goal of his collegiate career, and the only Penn score at Temple.
Dedication toward chasing those second chances has been one of Penn’s most noble merits that the team has carried on from the 2021 season. Despite ending as a scoreless half, the Quakers proved the difference in the second half against Rider, leaving no second to rest as they kept a constant advance toward the Broncs’ goal.
But the chase for second chances notes the significance of missed first touches, which are crucial to efficiently moving the ball up the field, and being precise in every opportunity in front of goal.
This early in the season, however, Penn was not the only victim of imperfect first touches and inaccurate aerial challenges, as Rider and Temple each presented similar levels of early-season match fitness.
"Any of these games early on in the season can really be flipped with a coin," Gill said. "They [Rider] have some talented individuals, and they're probably trying to figure out some of their best fits in their setup. You saw it on display tonight — and they were a little bit slow getting started, but by the end of it, they were quite aggressive and could carry the game, and you can see their effect, for sure."
After the Rider win at home, Zazueta rated his fitness an “8” out of 10; an exciting optimism necessary to set bold expectations through the early season, while still recognizing much room to build. And with the underclassmen stepping up into decisive roles, there are yet many names on the roster who could serve stellar performances through the season.
“There are yet tests for us to still take on,” Gill said. “There are still challenges ahead of us, and I think some players on our team that didn't necessarily play tonight, will play an important role somewhere for us moving forward.”
Because Penn spent most of its 2021 season at home, the Quakers will be on the road for most of the season. Only four games remain to be played beside the Schuylkill, with the rest of the season's home games scheduled at Penn Park. Penn men's soccer will spend this weekend in New York, facing Albany on Sept. 9, and Colgate on Sept. 11.