Swedish Midfielder Moa Mattsson Will Lead UMass’ Charge Towards A10 Glory in 2012
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Home of six College Cup appearances including a runner-up finish in 1987, four A10 titles, four A10 Tournament titles, fifteen NCAA Tournament appearances, Hermann Trophy award winner April Kater (1990), and U.S. internationals Debbie Belkin and Brianna Scurry, UMass, it’s safe to say, has no small degree of soccer history to its name. Unfortunately for the Minutewomen, almost all of that history came before the turn of the millennium. In the eyes of many, UMass is a relic of history gone by, having not tasted the NCAA Tournament since 1997. Recent times have brought much change and little success for the Minutewomen who went through three coaches in as many years from 2008-2010.
After longtime and storied coach Jim Rudy retired from his post after the 2008 season, UMass scrambled to hire Angela Napoli as an interim replacement. However UMass struggled in Napoli’s only year in charge, leading to the program reaching out to Northeastern coach Ed Matz to take control of the program on a long-term basis. Matz was a workhorse at Northeastern, coaching both the men and the women at times but focusing on the latter in recent times, bringing home silverware in his last two years with the clubs, making him an appealing target for the Minutewomen.
Matz still has a long way to go before UMass can think about even coming close to emulating the glory days, but 2011 was a marked step up for the program, as the Minutewomen got over .500 for the first time since 2007, hit double digit wins for the first time since 2006, and finished with fourteen wins for the first time since 1997. Matz came into his second season in charge in Amherst following a debut year that was a mild success despite finishing three games under .500, as the club did make it to the postseason but were otherwise largely anonymous.
Hungry for a chance to jump up the A10 hierarchy, UMass nonetheless opened up the new campaign in middling form, going 2-2-1 in their first five. None of the wins were much to write home about, while one of the losses, a 4-1 blowout at home to Bryant, was a potential anchor around the Minutewomen’s necks. An upset win over state rivals Boston University was what kickstarted the season into life for UMass though, and the club went their next five without conceding while winning six in a row and going eight unbeaten. The positive streaks led UMass into a potential title tilt with surprise A10 pacesetters La Salle in mid-October.
Despite being dominated on the stat sheet for much of the day, UMass made the most of their chances and headed into extra time tied at two with the Explorers. They’d fall to a ninety-sixth minute goal, but they had still shown that they were among the A10′s better sides, even in defeat. The club would then win three in a row and had a chance to finish runners-up in the league if they beat Richmond in the regular season finale but instead fell to the Spiders, 1-0. It was a costly loss in many ways for UMass, who slipped to fourth in the league, losing a first-round bye for the A10 Tournament, in addition to losing ground in the RPI.
The Minutewomen were rather surprisingly in the at-large bid mix heading into the postseason and certainly looked like having a chance of stealing a bid with a deep run. They got just that, beating Saint Bonaventure in the opening round before upsetting league champs La Salle in the semi-finals. Matz’s side were certainly in with a chance win or lose in the A10 Tournament final, but a win would have made it academic, of course. However, their opponents’ postseason pedigree would show in the final, as they scored in the first minute and proceeded to steamroll the Minutewomen in a 5-1 drubbing.
UMass’ nervous wait on Selection Monday ended in disappointment. The club’s wins over La Salle and Boston University hadn’t been enough when all was said and done. Like a few of the other bubble hopefuls who had fallen short, it might’ve come down to one result. In UMass’ case, it was probably the loss to Bryant in early September, the club’s one truly bad loss in a great season. While the year ended on a down note, Matz and co. can probably take heart in knowing that the rebuilding project in Amherst looks healthy and ahead of schedule.
The next step for Matz and UMass is the big one of course, and getting back to the NCAA Tournament doesn’t promise to be any easier given just how competitive the top of the A10 has become as of late. In his brief time at the head of the Minutewomen, Matz has given his club a major makeover, bringing in transfers (including a few from his old Northeastern club) and no shortage of international talent. Little changes on the latter front this season, with Matz bringing in some more fine European talent in the form of Icelandic youth international Rebekka Sverrisdottir, countrywoman Hlin Gunnlaugsdottir, and Italian U20 captain Martina Rosucci.
Matz will surely be hoping that some of his new recruits, domestic or otherwise, can provide some juice to an offense that loses top two scorers Julie Morrissey and Deanna Colarossi, who combined for fourteen of the club’s twenty-eight goals last year. Even with the duo’s exploits in front of goal, UMass was still light years behind leaders La Salle and Dayton, meaning the Minutewomen got it done with defense last season, giving up just six goals in nine league games. A repeat might have to be in the cards if UMass wants to get a sniff of the NCAA Tournament this year given the offensive losses.
The Minutewomen look to be in good shape in goal this season with the return of their top two netminders from last season. The likely starter for the club going into the new year is senior Emily Cota, who ended up starting the bulk of UMass’ matches last season. In all honesty, Cota’s days as the club’s first choice looked to be numbered going into last season with Stephanie Gordon becoming eligible after a transfer from Northeastern, Matz’s former club. Gordon came to Amherst as a keeper of fine repute who had staked a spot in the Huskies’ record books and looked to enjoy further success with her new club. She began the season as the club’s starter, but a few weeks into the season, the shocking 4-1 defeat to Bryant changed everything.
Cota was back in as first choice and never relented in goal, starting the rest of the way. Both return for their senior season, with the script flipped going into 2012 with Cota entrenched in the starting role with Gordon fighting for time behind her. The club also may have solved its goalkeeping situation in the long-term with the signing of talented true freshman Danielle Kriscenski, a star at ECNL level with the SoccerPlus CT side. This situation looks like one of the more solid ones in the league and perhaps the nation.
The Minutewomen should be in pretty good shape on the backline as well, with the return of most of last season’s unit. That doesn’t include the group’s leader and arguably the best player on the club last year, Meghan Collins. A four-year starter who was versatile enough to play in defense or midfield, Collins was a constant for UMass and showed an offensive glint the past few seasons as well, with five goals and four assists over the past two years. Also gone is Lindsey DiOrio, one of the team’s top defensive reserves the past four seasons.
UMass shouldn’t suffer for experience this season though, with senior Jess Howe leading the defense. A three-year starter coming into her senior season, Howe is one of three returning players to have started every game last season and will be expected to help galvanize a defense that should be one of the league’s best. Also starting every game last season was Lauren Skesavage, who was a spot starter as a rookie, making three assists for the club before breaking into the lineup full-time last year. Sophomore Kristen Gargiulo also looks like a good bet for the starting defense after coming in as a rookie and starting sixteen matches for the club.
The big task ahead of Matz is filling the starting spot of the indomitable Collins. English junior Grace Coombs, another of the club’s recent imports, broke into the starting lineup in mid-September last season and generally stayed there for much of the year, starting ten matches as a rookie and is the likely frontrunner for the vacant spot in the first XI. Others in the mix include junior Brittany Moore, who was an A10 All-Rookie Team selection in 2010 but relegated to reserve duty most of last year, and sophomore Kelsey Varzeas, who made three starts but missed much of the season after mid-September.
The Minutewomen also add to their depth with a few promising freshmen as well. Mikayla Williams has been a standout for the powerhouse Scorpions SC club while also featuring on the Region I ODP squad and has been highly praised as a potential immediate contributor by Matz. Also joining up is Icelandic U19 international Rebekka Sverrisdottir. Playing at KR at club level, Sverrisdottir has also trained with the full Icelandic WNT and should add more continental class to this group. Though losing Collins hurts, this group is very deep and experienced and shouldn’t fall off too much if at all from last year’s strong performance.
UMass is a little harder hit in the midfield, where the Minutewomen lose a pair of players who combined for twenty-five starts last season. The big loss is an unexpected one, with sophomore Cecilia Jensen leaving after playing just one season for the club following a transfer from Elon. Jensen was clearly ready to go after sitting out 2010, starting seventeen matches and heating up as the season went along. The transfer ended up with assists in three of the club’s final five games, including on UMass goals in the first two rounds of the A10 Tournament.
Also departing is veteran Erin McGaffigan, who played under Matz at Northeastern before transferring before the 2011 campaign. The Dedham native would seemingly make a seamless transition, starting eight games and nabbing a pair of goals for the Minutewomen while appearing in all but one game.
Swedish sophomore Moa Mattsson is the likely fulcrum for this group this year after an impressive debut last year. An All-Region Third Team selection as a rookie, Mattsson came into Amherst having been a Swedish U19 international and was immediately an irreplaceable member of the lineup for UMass, starting every match and tying for the club lead with four assists. With another year to acclimate to the college game, Mattsson should be even better for the club.
Fellow second-year player Becky Landers also looks like a good bet for the starting lineup this season. Landers didn’t come in with as many plaudits as some others from last year’s recruiting class but ended up being very valuable nonetheless, starting sixteen games, a figure that likely would’ve been higher had she not missed much of September. Filling the vacant spot in midfield could be a challenge, though Matz has more than a few options to work with. Meredith Fox is the veteran, with the senior having started seventeen matches as a rookie but has featured rarely since, starting against Bryant last year but not playing at all after that one appearance.
Sophomores Emily Benjamin, one of the club’s top recruits last year, and Alyssa D’Arcy both featured exclusively off the bench last year but could be in line for more minutes given the shift in personnel. The returnees could face an intriguing challenge from Icelandic newcomer Hlin Gunnlaugsdottir, who has been plying her trade for Breidablik in her native land and is a former U19 international. Another potential international starlet fell by the wayside though, as the club’s signing of Italian U20 captain Martina Rosucci fell through when the Torino native returned to play for Brescia back in Italy after just a month in Amherst. Regardless, this group has a nice future with the likes of Mattsson and Landers heading things up and should again be one of the league’s better units, though it does seem to lack a little offensive punch.
The most worrying area by far for the Minutewomen this season is up front, where the club loses the vast majority of its scoring punch from last season. Neither Morrissey nor Colarossi began their careers at UMass, but both ended their collegiate careers in fine fashion with the club last season. Morrissey played three seasons at Cincinnati before impatience with the club’s uncompetitiveness spurred a transfer. Hopes had been high after fourteen goals with the Bearcats, and Morrissey more than lived up to her promise, scoring nine goals, including a whopping six game winners for the club.
A big Canadian, Colarossi spent two years with UMass after coming in from Oakland and impressed right off the bat with nine goals. Having to carry less of the scoring load, Colarossi saw her goals total dip to five, but she still saw seventeen starts and will be missed by Matz’s club. Cutting further into the club’s depth is the graduation of Natalie Muka a reserve for much of her UMass career.
Much of the scoring onus this season may fall upon sophomore Tori Sousa, who was one of the club’s better players for the second half of the season. Sousa scored four goals from mid-October on to go with four assists, earning All-A10 Rookie Team honors. Whether she can handle leading the line could well be a major factor in whether UMass contends for trophies this season. Junior Jen Houtmann has been a top reserve for much of her first two seasons with the club but hasn’t shown much of a scoring streak in front of goal thus far. Other options? It looks sparse, with the club possibly having to convert players from other positions or lean heavily on unproven freshmen. This is the club’s clear weakness in 2012, with Matz and co. facing a major task in replacing the lost production.
From the midfield back, UMass looks like a team that could contend for a league title. The frontline? Well, that’s another story entirely and could put a major crimp in the Minutewomen’s plans for a move up the league table. Sousa’s really the only proven scoring option, and she had some big-time players to play off of last season, meaning there will be questions as to whether she can be the scoring star the club needs so badly this year.
The good news is that if the club does sort itself out up front, they could well take another big step forward. Mattsson looks like becoming one of the league’s best players, and the defense is very solid despite Collins’ departure, with Cota holding it down in front of goal. With the worries in offense though, UMass looks more like a team that will be in upper-mid table rather than a title contender. Don’t rule out a run towards A10 Tournament glory though if they figure things out as the season goes along.