Men’s soccer optimistic after challenging season

Senior midfielder Simon Fitch dribbles at Sports Backers Stadium. CT file photo

Joe Dodson, Staff Writer 

Men’s soccer is looking to build success from a season of unexpected developments, that at one point saw 10 scholarship players out with injury.

“Other guys stepped up and found a way to get the job done,” coach Dave Giffard said. “We were able to learn quite a bit about our group as we move forward.” 

VCU failed to qualify for the conference tournament after finishing second in the Atlantic 10 Central group. The Rams posted a 4-3-2 season record and a 3-2-1 conference record. 

The conference was split into three groups in an attempt to minimize travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament consisted of the top seeds from each of the three groups as well as Saint Louis, who earned the wild card slot due to having the best second-place record. 

The injuries presented a problem for the Rams as several key starters missed long stretches of games. Giffard said the injuries were expected due to the 15-month gap between competitive matches.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that we had so many soft-tissue injuries during the course of the season,” Giffard said. “As I talk to other coaches around the country it’s a very constant theme.”

Being away from the team’s facilities and strength coach during the offseason was a main reason for the injuries, senior goalkeeper Mario Sequeira said. Sequeira said many of the players did not have access to gyms at home over the summer. 

“I think it was just unfortunate to not have that kind of access equally for everybody,” Sequeira said. “That took a toll of course with fitness levels.”

Several new faces earned quality first team minutes while some players were out with injuries.

Midseason injuries to starters on the offensive end landed freshman midfielder William Hitchcock a starting role to end the season. Hitchcock delivered a low-crossing ball to Manheim for his first collegiate assist in the Rams’ 2-0 win against George Mason on April 10.

“He’s a gym rat,” Giffard said about Hitchcock. “He shows up, he brings his lunch pail, he does his job and he ends up being effective with the qualities that he has.” 

The season was supposed to start with preseason matches beginning on Jan. 26, but due to COVID-19-related issues with opponents, VCU did not start its season until Feb. 24 against North Carolina State.

“We had games being canceled like basically every week because of COVID,” senior defender Ulrik Edvardsen said. “This team did a great job of just keeping its spirit up.” 

A four-year starter, Edvardsen earned his third consecutive All-Conference Second Team honor. Edvardsen anchored the Rams’ backline, holding three opposing teams scoreless and registered an assist during the Rams’ 3-2 win over Elon on March 7.

Sophomore midfielder Célio Pompeu was the Rams’ leading scorer, making all three of his goals in a hat-trick effort against Elon on March 7. After sustaining a hamstring injury 43 seconds into the Rams’ March 17 win over Davidson, the All-Conference Second Team honoree was forced to miss the remainder of the season.

Freshman midfielder Tariq Moutaouakil made his debut replacing Pompeu in the Davidson game and scored the game-winning goal in the 89th minute. 

“Usually it’s the older guys who carry a team, and I really think the freshmen did a great job coming into their first season taking on a lot of responsibility,” Edvardsen said.

All-Conference Rookie Team selection and freshman midfielder Jonathan Kanagwa said he was grateful for veterans like senior defender Zeron Sewell and senior midfielder Oquin Robinson for integrating the new players into the team’s system. 

“The older guys helped us a lot,” Kanagwa said. “They helped us gain confidence.” 

Giffard played redshirt-freshman defender Ethan Manheim at center forward as a way to add size on offense. The 6-foot-5-inch, Chesterfield, Virginia, native earned Player of the Week honors on April 12 after scoring in the final two regular season games.

With all eight seniors planning on returning next season, Giffard is hoping the team can use the difficult spring season as a stepping stone to success in the full fall schedule. Sequeira said he and the other seniors did not want to leave the program on a bad note. 

“I have so much love and so much passion for the VCU men’s soccer team,” Sequeira said. “I can’t leave on a challenging time like this.” 

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