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Men’s soccer looks to improve schedule, defense in upcoming season

The University of Memphis men’s soccer team put forth a solid effort during the 2014 season, but at the same time it felt like it could have been something more. The Tigers finished with a solid 9-7-2 record, starting the year with a monstrous 4-0 victory over a nationally ranked Saint Louis side and closing the regular season strong with two straight conference wins before a quarterfinal loss in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.

Despite the impressive start and finish to the regular season, the Tigers struggled in between. Memphis went 6-3-1 in non-conference play, but started the AAC slate with two losses and a draw. By the time Memphis was able to right the ship at the end of the season, the damage was already done.

Entering the 2015 season, head coach Richard Mulrooney is looking for ways to avoid such a slide this year, and may have found one in the form of a tough-as-nails non-conference schedule.

“We could set up games that there’s no guarantees for wins, but there’s games that I feel we could dominate and not really learn a lot from and you go into the conference and go, ‘Whoa, this is a 180 degree turn from what we just played and we’re not prepared for it,’” Mulrooney said. “That’s far from the truth this year.”

In addition to once again playing NCAA Tournament regulars UAB and St. Louis, Memphis has further bolstered the schedule with road matches at Kentucky, Louisville and SIU-Edwardsville, all of whom made the NCAA Tournament a season ago.

According to Mulrooney, the difficult games will better prepare the team for the start of the conference schedule, and will also help the team’s RPI rating, helping the Tigers’ chances of securing an elusive NCAA Tournament bid.

But to secure a berth to the prestigious postseason tournament the Tigers will have to pull off some victories against some of these difficult opponents, and in order to do so they’ll need performances from a talented pair of attacking players.

Sophomore forward Hector Cantele and junior midfielder Raul Gonzalez were key players for Memphis a season ago, with the latter notching a team-high six assists and the former putting a team-leading seven shots in the back of the net. Both players are poised for big seasons yet again, but will need contributions from the rest of the squad to capitalize offensively.

“Knowing that we’re returning Hector who’s our leading scorer, it gives me a peace of mind, but we need players around Hector that can also help to take the burden off of him of scoring goals or that can set him up for goals,” Mulrooney said.

Memphis loses graduating forward Fakhry Khulfan, who scored five goals and added two assists for the Blue and Gray in 2014. Khulfan was the only Tiger other than Cantele and Gonzalez with three scores or more a season ago.

While the Tigers don’t have a plethora of returning goal scorers, Mulrooney is more focused on the team’s defensive play, stating that although the Tigers were decent on the defensive side of the ball a year ago, it wasn’t good enough for the team to reach its full potential.

“If you don’t give up any goals the worst you can do is tie, and that’s the honest truth,” the second-year Memphis coach added. “We don’t want to play a boring style of soccer, and we won’t. We’ve got an attacking ability that I think is second-to-none in our conference, but in saying that, we can’t afford to give up four goals and only be able to score three.

That’s exactly what happened in a 3-4 early-season loss to Lipscomb last year, and similarly in the team’s AAC Tournament quarterfinal loss to South Florida the Bulls lit up the Memphis defense for four goals in a 4-2 loss for the Tigers.

Where Cantele and Gonzalez are Memphis’ game-changers offensively, senior defender Quincy Thomas could step up as a leader on the Tigers’ backline.

“I think he’s been a player waiting for an opportunity like this,” Mulrooney said of the senior defender. “The other day when I put him on the field he’s got that leadership and that quality of being a good soccer player. He’ll be able to play from the first day and help us whoever we’re playing against.”

Thomas logged 1,351 minutes in 17 games in 2014, scoring one goal and notching an assist while also being one of the team’s top defenders.

The Tigers will get their first taste of action in 2015 August 19th against Jefferson College in the first of three exhibition games before the start of the regular season. Memphis played only two exhibition games the last two seasons. According to Mulrooney, the extra practice game was added due to the large number of incoming freshmen, and will serve as both an evaluation process and to help the newer players get the nerves out of their system before the games start counting.

Memphis and Jefferson College will kickoff at 5 p.m. Aug. 19 at the University of Memphis’ Park Avenue campus. The Tigers will then play two more exhibitions prior to the season opener against UAB Aug. 28.

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