For the fourth consecutive year, the Loyola Maryland men’s soccer program will be a top two seed in the Patriot League tournament and enjoy a bye to the semifinal round. And the players have a 0-4 start to thank for this fall’s accomplishment.
That last sentence is not a misprint. Senior forward Josh Fawole said 2-1 losses at North Carolina State on Aug. 30, Appalachian State on Sept. 1 and Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 and a 3-2 double overtime setback at James Madison on Sept. 8 shaped the team into the No. 2 seed that is 10-7-1 overall and 7-2-0 in the conference.
“I do think it has made us better because it was something we weren’t used to,” the Columbia resident and Long Reach graduate said. “It was a slap in the face, and we hadn’t really had that since I’ve been here. This time, it was like a punch in the face because those teams were beatable.”
The Greyhounds, who received votes in the most recent United Soccer Coaches rankings, were the No. 2 seed in the Patriot League tournament in 2016 and the top seed in 2017 and 2018.
But those accomplishments have not yielded tournament championships and NCAA postseason appearances, and coach Steve Nichols said the current group has the ingredients to extend this season into December.
“There’s no doubt this team should make the tournament, and there’s no doubt this team should make a little bit of a run,” he said. “Anything less would be disappointing because we have the talent to do that.”
If Loyola were to make it to that stage, the slow start will be an afterthought. But at the time, it shook the players, who had never gone winless in their first four games in each of the previous three years.
Freshman Daniel Osuji, who has started 16 of 17 games at center back, acknowledged that emotions were raw during the four-game skid.
“It was pretty rough,” the Baltimore resident and Perry Hall graduate said. “We had a couple arguments, not everybody was on the same page after games, we weren’t talking to each other. It wasn’t a good vibe. So I feel like that motivated us to start winning.”
Osuji credited players such as senior midfielder Barry Sharifi, junior midfielder Justin Ingram and Fawole with taking charge in the locker room. Fawole said there were “a few” players-only meetings, but the greatest motivator was the zero in the win column.
“When we were 0-4, it’s desperation,” he said. “At that point, we needed the results, we needed the goals. We had to start turning it around.”
Nichols blamed himself for scheduling North Carolina State, Appalachian State, Virginia Tech and James Madison. The Hokies, who were ranked No. 10 two months ago, are now No. 22, the Dukes are one spot higher, and the Wolfpack are receiving votes.
“Maybe I went a little too far in challenging them,” he said. “I realized the guys had lost their confidence, and you as a coaching staff begin to question yourself. ‘Did you do the right thing? Holy mackerel, are we going to lose this team?’ ”
The Greyhounds ended the slide by defeating Princeton, 2-0, on Sept. 14 and Army West Point, 4-0, seven days later. Nichols said right around that time, he noticed the players beginning to adapt to a 3-5-2 formation in which the wing defenders on the back line helped support the offense, which was led by senior Brian Saramago and Fawole up top.
The change in alignment from a 4-3-3 scheme paid dividends offensively. Loyola leads the Patriot League in goals (2.2), assists (2.2) and shots (14.5) per game and trails only Army West Point in corner kicks per game (5.9). Their average rates of goals, assists and shots are their highest since joining the conference for the 2013 season.
Saramago leads the league in both assists (nine) and points (25), Fawole is tied for second with Saramago in goals (eight), and Sharifi is tied for sixth in points (15).
“It did take a little getting used to, but now you can see the relationships between the rotations, that we understand where we have to be and what we have to do,” said Saramago, who — along with Sharifi — is on watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy. “It’s just gotten a lot simpler.”
After Wednesday night’s 1-0 win against American at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore, the Greyhounds are 5-0-1 in their past six games, and that stretch includes a 1-1 double overtime tie on Oct. 22 against then-No. 2 Wake Forest.
The players know that capturing the program’s first Patriot League tournament championship would also lead to a berth in the NCAA tournament. But Saramago pointed out that he and his teammates can’t afford to overlook the conference tournament after three consecutive upsets in the semifinal round.
“We still have to focus on the Patriot League, and that is what’s going to get us to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I feel like in the past years, we haven’t overlooked it, but we haven’t really gone at it with the mentality that we should have gone at it. If you have one slip-up in the tournament, your season’s over, and that’s the hard reality. So for me, I don’t think it’s hard not to think about that stuff because I know how challenging the tournament games are and how important they are.”
The urgency to break through is especially strong for the eight-member senior class.
“We’ve fallen short three times,” Fawole said. “There’s no other option to me besides winning. We have to get it done, and I’m going to do everything I can to get it done, and I know that the other guys will as well. I don’t want to leave this school without a ring or a championship especially since we’re good enough to be there and we’re good enough to win.”