Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer
After the men’s soccer team’s fall season was postponed due to COVID-19, VCU men’s soccer coach Dave Giffard let his players decide between staying in their hometowns for the fall semester or coming to Richmond to train for the upcoming spring season.
“We have a group of guys that are highly motivated to get better,” senior midfielder and defender Simon Fitch said. “I think we saw the potential in our group, so it was a pretty easy decision knowing that we would be safe.”
VCU’s season opening match against Charlotte scheduled for Jan. 26 was canceled. They will now open their season on the road at Temple University at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. Giffard said his team is “buzzing” to get back on the field against outside competition.
“We try to take a negative situation and make it as positive as we can,” Giffard said. “We had a great fall and we had a lot of growth.”
Many of the players had not taken a break this long from competitive matches since they were kids. Fitch said the intrasquad scrimmages paired with a creative, always changing training schedule kept the players engaged during the offseason.
“Just being able to train I think got us through that tough time,” Fitch said. “Because as a competitor, you want to keep playing and competing.”
Usually at this time of year, several of the senior players have already left to sign professional contracts. Due to the season being postponed, the NCAA decided all fall sport student-athletes will receive both an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it, through a blanket waiver.
“It’s been great because the older, more experienced guys have been pushed by the guys who are waiting in the wings,” Giffard said. “Those guys [the new players] now are more up to speed and they’re more prepared to push and play.”
The team has a unique opportunity to spend back to back seasons all together as one group.
“In my time here, this is the deepest and most competitive roster that we’ve had in all positions,” Fitch said. “It elevates the level in training because you’re competing for a starting spot at all times.”
The men’s soccer team has added nine new players to the roster in what Giffard has called his “most solid recruiting class” yet during his 11-year tenure at VCU. Sophomore forward Maverick McGann said the prolonged offseason has allowed for the team to build up chemistry with the newcomers.
“We really mean it when we say we are a family here,” McGann said. “We try to integrate them in practice, we tell them jokes and try to be as close with them as possible.”
Giffard said he expects to play up to 23 players to start their non-conference season, which he called “highly unusual.” He said it was due to the fact that he wants the players to be able to return safely to a 90-minute game shape while taking advantage of the talented roster.
“We need to give them opportunities to see where they are and what they can do,” Giffard said.
VCU returns most of their starters from last season, including two reigning All-A-10 Second Team honorees: senior defender Ulrik Edvardsen and redshirt senior forward Biska Biyombo.
“There are a lot of people who came back who give us a sense of confidence,” McGann said. “They give us experience.”
Sophomore midfielder Celio Pompeu is back at full health after missing the majority of last season with a lower-body injury. The dynamic Brazilian scored the first goal in VCU’s comeback win against George Mason in the A-10 quarterfinals last season.
“I would expect if he had played this fall, he would have been one of the top picks in the MLS draft,” Giffard said about Pompeu. “He is back healthy and fit, and he will be an exciting addition for fans to see.”
The team will play 11 non-conference games, including five teams that competed in the national tournament last season. They will face Georgetown, last season’s national champion, on Feb. 10.
“As a competitor and an athlete, you always want to play the best of the best,” Fitch said. “Hopefully, it shows us where we need to improve and how we can win games.”
The Rams will play only six A-10 games, including home and away matches against George Mason, Davidson and George Washington. The A-10 tournament will be hosted by the highest seed from April 15 to 17.
The Rams’ first home game will be Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. against Old Dominion University at Sports Backers stadium.