With its record currently sitting at 3-4-2, the Slippery Rock University men’s soccer team is in better standing than it was at this point last season, but a rift in the Green and White’s offensive efforts at home and on the road have left opportunities for an even better mark on the table.
To the naked eye, the team’s scoring totals through the first eight games of the schedule leave something to be desired. The men have scored two or more goals in a game only twice, and each of those instances occurred on their own grass. At home, The Rock is riding a three-game winning streak in which it has scored six goals while allowing only one. Away, it has been the polar opposite, as the team has gotten off to slow starts and been blanked in four of its five games after getting off of the bus.
However, interim head coach Kevin Wilhelm feels that his squad is steadily improving and emphasizes that its offensive structure is not one that a casual fan would be all that familiar with.
It is a system that calls for well-rounded players, as they are not designated absolutely to the position they play. The effort does not just rely on the forwards, but also includes the fullbacks and midfielders, and applies to both ends of the pitch, seeing that the forwards have defensive responsibilities from up top as well as attacking.
“They as individuals each have their own attributes,” Wilhelm said. “Some of them are better on the dribble, some of them are a bit better striking the ball, some are a bit better at winning balls out of the air, and then some with the head. We’re really diverse when it comes to that.”
“It’s just one of those things when trying to scout us or defend us. It’s very hard to see where our attack is going to come from because everybody shares those responsibilities,” Wilhelm added.
On paper, the assortment of skills is effective in throwing off opponents’ preparation for the offense. Yet, it hasn’t gone to plan at away games. The team has been outshot by the hosts in each of its five road games and has gotten four or fewer shots on goal in four such contests. In its past two instances, granted both came against exceptionally solid PSAC adversaries in Gannon and Seton Hill, The Rock has failed to find the back of the net.
Wilhelm explained the cause for slow away starts as being related to the preset momentum home teams enjoy and the process of the visitors settling in mentally, both of which are something his young players are getting used to.
“When you play away, usually those first 10, 15 minutes are nuts. It’s chaos and that home team that you’re playing against is using that home energy,” Wilhelm stated. “And a lot of times, you almost get bullied into a goal. We do need to improve on that and get better with that.”
On the flip side, The Rock enjoys that same momentum when entertaining guests here. There is a noticeable contrast in the team’s sum of shots on goal when playing at James Egli Field. Three times The Rock has recorded at least eight shots on goal and against Salem, the team fired 20 shots in total, its most in a game since 2014.
“I think that playing at home gives you a different type of energy and a lot of the attack in soccer comes down to the type of energy you have,” Wilhelm said. “You’re a bit more comfortable, but it also gives you that energy where you’re not riding on a bus for a few hours and then trying to get goals.”
He also feels that the sports adage that defense travels does not always apply to soccer.
“When teams play away, they, defensively, are a little bit more in a shell, which makes it easier for us to build attacks the way we want to,” Wilhelm said. “When we’re playing at their place, generally, their defense is a lot more assertive with a lot more pressure, which makes it harder sometimes with the way we play to the net.”
Wilhelm and his assistants compile a scouting report prior to each game, and the offensive proceeding differs from matchup to matchup, sometimes even from half to half.
In its 1-0 win over Cedarville on September 15, the focus was on getting the ball down the wing and into the corners, where the opposing defense was playing softer, to attempt plays into the box. This plan worked, as forwards Alexander Vilchek and Luke Picchi collaborated early for the game’s lone score. In the next home game, six days later against Lock Haven, the plan was based more on penetrating the Bald Eagles’ midfield.