By Akshai Wadhwani
Terrier sports fans can expect another high-flying Boston University men’s soccer team this season—at least in Patriot League play.
The prospect of beginning their 2018-19 regular season on Friday has undoubtedly inspired plenty of excitement in this latest BU squad. Yet perhaps it has conjured some nerves as well—at least for returning members of the roster.
After all, the Terriers started last year’s campaign in a fashion that could hardly have been more dismal: An 0-5 record—including, perhaps most painfully, a 4-0 defeat to Boston College in their home opener—with 13 goals conceded and none scored through their first five matches (all nonconference games).
BU did not have a history of slow starts. The losing streak marked the first time in head coach Neil Roberts’s 33 years in charge that the Terriers lost five matches in a row to start the season.
They would eventually finish 1-6-3 in nonconference play, which is also an all-time low under Roberts and the first time since 2013 that BU has finished with a losing nonconference record.
These are statistics Roberts and his players would like to avoid repeating, starting with improved performances in nonconference games this season.
Subtract those first five matches of the 2016-17 campaign, and you get a typically dominant Terrier side. Starting with a 1-0 win against Harvard on September 16, the Scarlet-and-White pushed to a 7-3-3 record through the rest of the regular season, including an appearance in the Patriot League semifinal.
The resurgence marked a continuation of divisional dominance for the Terriers, as they finished with a winning record in conference play for the seventh time in the past decade and made their third Patriot League semifinal appearance since joining the league in 2013. BU also shut out their first four conference opponents. The Terriers will hope to carry that trend into this season’s Patriot League opener against American on September 22.
The preseason Patriot League coaches poll adhered to the history books where the Terriers are concerned. BU came in second place, topped only by 2017’s regular season league champions and tournament semifinalists Loyola Maryland. Also of note was an All-Patriot League Preseason Team accolade for star midfielder Toti Knutsson. The sophomore led BU last year with 11 points (3 goals, 5 assists).
The Terriers will hope to replicate their defensive performance from last season, when they recorded the fourth-lowest goals allowed total in the Patriot League. Offensively, they could use a boost; with just 18 goals scored, they averaged less than a goal per game in the 2017-18 campaign. This year’s addition of two new forwards in freshmen John Siracuse and Rene Ismail could very well be a part of the solution.
For the upcoming campaign, Neil Roberts will retain the top six points leaders from last year’s roster, as well as five 2017 All-Patriot League members. Among them are Knutsson, goals leader Matt McDonnell, and joint assist leader T.J. Butzke. Other returning Terriers include juniors Satchel Cortet and Mana Chavali (2 goals, 2 assists) and sophomore Austin D’Anna (3 goals).
In terms of age, this year’s Terrier squad is very well-balanced. 16 upperclassmen and 20 underclassmen make up the roster, including 11 freshmen. With those numbers comes the possibility that head coach Roberts could be doing a fair amount of experimentation with his starting lineup early in the season.
Players to Watch
With Adam Shiekali, the Terriers’ imposing defensive captain, now graduated, the responsibility for leading BU’s back four will likely fall on the shoulders of senior Ben Valek. The center back was Neil Roberts’s preferred choice to start alongside Sheikali in the heart of the defense for much of last season, and looks poised to retain his position in the first eleven after helping BU to seven shutouts. Alongside fellow senior defender Josh Barkoff, Valek’s leadership skills will be tested in a defense with a reputation to uphold.
Last season’s breakout star out of Gardabaer, Iceland will return to Boston seeking to retain his crown as points and assists leader. Thanks to skillful and forward-thinking wing play, Knutsson posted three goals and five assists for 11 points in the 2017-18 campaign. After such a stellar rookie performance, Terrier fans will no doubt anticipate a similarly impressive outing in his second year at BU.
As a freshman in 2015, Butzke netted two goals and added an additional four assists—good for a Rookie of the Week award, as well as a second-place finish in the final assist table. Now, after a less prolific sophomore year, the central midfielder appears to have hit his stride again after co-leading the Terriers in helpers last season (with Knutsson).
Butzke is poised to assume leadership of a highly experienced midfield (eight upperclassmen); his role as both an anchor in the center of the pitch and an excellent distributor of the ball going forward was vital last year and will continue to be so heading into this season.
Friday vs. Rhode Island
The Terriers will commence their regular season at Nickerson Field on Friday at 7 p.m., in a rematch against Rhode Island. The Rams hosted BU in both teams’ regular season opener last year, with the home side coming out 3-0 winners.
The Terriers now have the chance to exact vengeance on their own turf. They have won seven of the last eight matchups and own a 23-16-8 advantage in the all-time series. Yet even with past history in their favor, the task is still one holding immense pressure. A loss could trigger the start of another miserable early season run; a win, on the other hand, would send a statement that this year’s BU team means business.