The Elon University men’s soccer team hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start expected of a program that has won three straight conference championships and made three straight trips to the NCAA tournament. The Phoenix sits at 3-2-2 after a rocky, up-and-down nonconference performance that featured a stout defense often held back by a frustratingly stagnant offense.
If battling inconsistency isn’t enough, the Phoenix has faced a rash of injuries, with five potential starters — junior forward Caue Da Silva, junior midfielder Eduardo Alvarez, sophomore midfielder Alex Kowalski, senior defender Austin Dunker and junior midfielder Myles Mansfield — going down at one point or another.
“They’ve been resilient, and their work ethic is unquestionable,” said Elon head coach Chris Little. “We’ve had a tough spell of injuries. I don’t know if there’s any other team that could say they’ve lost five potential starters out, but we’ve dealt with it well. The character of the team has come to the forefront.”
Adding to the team’s frustration has been its inability to string multiple victories in a row and continue the momentum from a streak.
It’s something junior midfielder Miguel Salazar knows the Phoenix must resolve before facing the toughest portion of its schedule.
“The most important thing when you’re on a streak is keeping humble and not getting comfortable,” Salazar said. “Every game is difficult, and they come thick and fast, so you have to bring it every game. But if we stay humble and don’t get ahead of ourselves, we’ll be able to start winning in streaks.”
Defense undoubtedly carried the Phoenix through its nonconference schedule. The unit has conceded just eight goals, six of which came in two games, against Stetson University in the season opener Aug. 29 and against Coastal Carolina University Sept. 26. That performance has been essential in giving Elon a chance to win every game despite having to overcome a less-than-stellar offense.
To heat up offensively, Da Silva said he thinks the team must discover the same form that teams from the past couple of years have had. Once they find that rhythm, Da Silva said they will begin scoring goals with greater ease and on a more consistent basis.
“It’s not too late. It’s not about how you start, but it’s how you finish,” Da Silva said. “We’re approaching the second half of the season trying to find that rhythm. If we can find it, it’ll allow us to put wins together and get to where we want to be at the end of the season.”
It will be especially important for the offense as Elon makes its debut in the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference the Phoenix considers a step up in competition over the Southern Conference, which it left after last season.
“The CAA has an intensity level game in and game out that matches or exceeds the SoCon,” said junior defender Nathan Diehl. “The intensity and quality of play is a notch higher than in the SoCon.”
The conference features two top-25 teams — the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the University of Delaware. The rest of the conference’s seven teams, Elon included, are fairly even and are all solid squads with talent up and down the roster.
“We want to test ourselves against the best,” Little said. “And we’re going to face a deep pool of quality teams and quality depth in the CAA. Any time a league sends three and four teams to the NCAA tournament, you know there is a lot of talented competition.”
It will be vital, Diehl said, for the Phoenix to prove itself in its first few conference games in order to make a statement to its fellow members that it is capable of beating anyone at any time.
“You want to establish confidence and convince our guys and the naysayers that we can hang with anyone in the conference,” Diehl said. “We know we can hang with anyone in the CAA, it’s just time to prove it.”