There is one glaring weakness, at least in the season’s early stages, for the Elon University men’s soccer team, and it’s on the offensive end.
The unit has no shortage of dynamic playmakers, starting with senior forward Jason Waterman and junior midfielder James Brace. But in the early going, those two, as well as the rest of Elon’s go-to offensive options, have struggled to consistently find the back of the net.
Despite the burden of not having an offense to support them, the defense, which the Phoenix considers its calling card, has more than lived up to the challenge. The unit has conceded just four goals in five games, with three of those four coming in the season opener against Stetson University at the John Rennie/Nike Classic in Durham.
Since letting in three goals to the Hatters, the Phoenix has held three of its next four opponents scoreless and has not allowed another goal in regulation. What’s more is that Elon’s allowing less than a goal per match, a remarkably low number for a team competing at the highest level of collegiate soccer.
“There’s a commitment from all 11 players on the pitch to defend,” said Elon head coach Chris Little. “The application from the players has been very good. We feel as though we’ve limited the opposition to few chances.”
Little credits his defense’s early season dominance to its discipline and organization in the midfield and in the back line. That stringency has allowed Elon to protect the box with large numbers of maroon and gold jerseys and force opponents to take most of their shots from well outside the box.
“It’s the discipline the players have shown, both physically and tactically,” Little said. “Players are doing their role and working hard on the training pitch and knowing the standards we expect of them.”
It’s hardly an aberration. The unit allowed just more than a goal per game (1.3) last season after spending most of the season under one. They conceded more than two goals just three times, once to the No. 1 team in the nation, the University of California at Los Angeles.
Elon’s solid defense has become the program’s identity and a source of great pride for its coaches and players. It seems year after year that the one common denominator among Elon’s most successful teams has been a stout midfield and back four.
“It’s part of our mentality. First we defend, then we attack,” said junior midfielder Miguel Salazar. “If we’re able to keep teams from scoring, that gives our offense a chance to win the game, and that’s our primary focus.”
On offense, only three Phoenix players have scored — Salazar, who leads the team with two goals, junior defender Nathan Diehl, who has one goal, and Brace, who has found the net twice.
Waterman, who last year led the Phoenix in total points (31), goals (12) and tied for the team-lead in assists (seven), has not contributed a single point this season despite leading the team in total shots and shots on target.
It’s something that has backed him up a bit, as he wants to do everything he can to contribute to his team’s victories. He remains patient, knowing that the goals he covets will come with time and as a result of his hard work.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you’re not producing offensively like you’d like to,” Waterman said. “Even when I’m playing well offensively, I want to do better, but I’ve played long enough to know that you can fix anything with hard work and repetition.”
The problem, as Salazar sees it, has been finishing the quality looks they’ve garnered and, just as important, making quality passes or moves that lead to those looks.
“We’ve been a little bit unlucky,” Salazar said. “We’re getting the ball into good areas. We’re just missing the last pass or the last run that we need to make. If we just make that last play, we can find the goals.”
Elon is creating a number of quality chances in every contest, but they haven’t been able to finish enough of those opportunities.
“If we weren’t creating chances, I’d be worried,” Little said. “But we are creating chances, so it’s just a need for more quality and execution on our part, but it’ll come. As long as we keep creating chances they’re eventually going to drop.”