Yanni Kouiroukidis, Contributing Writer
VCU men’s soccer is returning this year with new challenges to face — this time, it’s the opponent.
The team dealt with three cancellations and five postponements over the course of their season last spring and missed the Atlantic 10 tournament. Team injuries and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic also affected the team’s goals.
“Last spring, prior to this fall, we probably had the most good players we’ve ever had and our team was probably the worst we’ve ever had here,” said head coach Dave Giffard.
Last season, the Rams found it hard to establish connections with each other due to the strict COVID-19 restrictions, according to multiple players. Players said they couldn’t get into the rhythm of the game and were having trouble staying healthy.
The team also said they didn’t spend enough time together during the season to establish a true connection on or off the pitch. For instance, after an opposing team would score a goal, instead of coming together as a group, the Rams would find themselves arguing and placing the blame on each other.
“It was hard for us to really find that team connection,” said redshirt-sophomore defender Jared Valdes. “I think it was just the isolation during COVID. We’re going to be different this year though, I think we are bringing the right energy.”
What isn’t seen by spectators is what goes on in the players’ lives. Redshirt-junior midfielder Pierre Fiorre Mane said he had a lot of trouble balancing practice and his life outside of the sport.
“Last year was tough for me,” Mane said. “I was working at a place 10 minutes off of campus and it would just be constant school, practice and then work. It was challenging.”
Mane wasn’t the only player who was facing challenges outside the locker room; many on the team were having difficulty adjusting to what was going on in the world, according to Giffard.
“If we had 30 guys on the team last year, 27 of those guys had the worst year they’ve ever had in their life,” Giffard said. “You had a bunch of guys who couldn’t spend any time together, stayed in isolation 24/7, and the only time you really got to interact with other people would be in competition at training.”
Injuries also plagued the Rams during last season’s nine-game schedule — Junior midfielder Célio Pompeu only played in four games last season due to a leg injury. Despite missing more than half the season, Pompeu still led the team in goals last year with three.
Pompeu endured injuries in both of his seasons at VCU. During his freshman year, the Fortaleza, Brazil, native only played in the team’s final three games but led the team in a comeback win over George Mason in the A-10 tournament quarterfinal.
“I mean, he’s the most talented player in the country,” Giffard said. “If he stays healthy and is able to deal with some of the pressures, then I think he’ll be very successful.”
Pompeu, like many others on the roster, is looking to bounce back from the previous year. However, it won’t come with ease as the Rams are scheduled to play 12 opponents that are either ranked or receiving votes in the preseason poll this season, including three top 20 teams in the first four games.
The black and gold will open the season on the road against No. 7 Wake Forest on Thursday before traveling to No. 4 North Carolina on Sunday.
VCU will also face No. 18 Charlotte on Sept. 10, No. 23 Fordham on Oct. 23 and No. 2 Indiana on Oct. 27. Five other teams on the schedule could also make appearances in the rankings, due to them being right outside the top 25 in the preseason poll.
“It’s just another game,” Giffard said. “Obviously you get a little more excited when you play against the other top teams. The season’s a journey and what you can do is learn about your team.”
Men’s soccer will begin the season at Wake Forest on Thursday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.