It isn’t often the new kids on the block join a different conference and show long-standing and well-established programs how to play. But that is exactly what the Elon University men’s soccer team has done in its maiden campaign through the Colonial Athletic Association, where it has enjoyed the type of success unprecedented for a team in its position.
The Phoenix immediately put itself in position to win the regular season crown and host the postseason tournament barely a month after joining the league with high expectations but little idea of what they would be up against.
While Elon lost 2-1 to the University of Delaware on Nov. 2 in a game that could have given the Phoenix the No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament, there’s still a tremendous upside with being the No. 4 seed. The Phoenix will host No. 5 Northeastern University at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at Rudd Field in a CAA Quarterfinal.
Head coach Chris Little isn’t surprised with his team’s start, as he expected the program to translate without issue no matter the conference.
“We’ve set a precedent and a culture in our program with the mentality that we can play with anyone in the country,” Little said. “Our determination and work ethic allow us to be successful in whatever conference we’re in.”
It didn’t appear that way two games in, though, as the Phoenix lost its conference opener to Hofstra University, then battled for a scoreless draw at the College of William and Mary.
It was the alarm the team needed to appreciate the difficulty of the league and the passion and intensity that the Phoenix needed to come out and succeed in the highly competitive CAA.
“We sort of needed that kick in the butt,” said junior midfielder Myles Mansfield. “Hofstra came in and gave us the wake-up call we needed. After that we knew we had to step it up.”
The Phoenix regrouped and refocused for the home stretch, rededicating itself to the practice pitch in order to flip the script on a season that seemed destined for mediocrity.
“We were able to get in a groove and put a winning streak together, which was huge for our confidence,” Mansfield said. “We were able to turn it around and make up for our slow start and find our way, especially offensively.”
The draw with William & Mary was the turning point in its season, as the Phoenix rattled off wins in quick succession, thanks in large part to its scoring in bunches. It started with a 5-0 undressing of Northeastern University, followed by arguably Elon’s most impressive win of the season: a 2-1 victory over the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which was nationally ranked at the time.
The Phoenix found its groove and rode the wave of momentum to wins over Drexel University, and then stepping out of conference play for the final time to beat Duke University 2-1.
After a scoreless draw against James Madison University, Elon beat an outmatched College of Charleston team 2-1 in double overtime in a game much closer than expected. Still, it was a victory that extended the Phoenix’s unbeaten streak to seven.
A key factor to Elon’s dramatic turnaround and undefeated streak was its improved offense. The unit struggled in the season’s beginning but has since scored 11 goals in seven conference games.
“[Offense] was certainly a factor in our turnaround, but I don’t think it was the sole factor,” Little said. “The guys knew they would need to step up their production offensively to win consistently in the CAA, but we’d been setting ourselves up before, we just haven’t been finishing our chances until recently.”
But it was Elon’s brand of attacking soccer, senior defender Austin Dunker said, as well as its unique ability to adapt seamlessly to their opponent’s playing style, that were essential to the Phoenix’s turnaround. Both translated well and were a natural fit in the new conference.
“We’re prepared and able to adapt to any playing style, which is a big reason why we’ve been so successful,” Dunker said. “We’re flexible in how we adapt to different game situations and tactics and are comfortable with changing it up on the fly.”
As the Phoenix closes in on the CAA Tournament, it can reflect fondly on the past games. That wake-up call was what Elon needed to straighten out what appeared to be a derailing season.