Men’s soccer: A tale of two defenses

The men’s soccer team battled through an up-and-down opening weekend, due in part to the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” routine they’ve been putting forth on defense.

In the Colonials’ loss to American on Friday, the back line allowed 15 shots – three of which found the back of the net – and required goalie Jean-Pierre van der Merwe to make five saves. The same defense put on an entirely different show Sunday, shutting down Howard and limiting the Bison to a mere three shots, none of which were in van der Merwe’s vicinity.

For GW, the disparity was palpable, and was the difference between this weekend’s win and loss in the D.C. College Cup.

“We looked a lot more decisive than we did on Friday. Defensively, we got a clean sheet,” head coach Craig Jones said.

The team’s defensive performance will make all the difference for goalie van der Merwe. In a game like GW’s win against Howard, where the defense takes the pressure off the goalkeeper, a goalie’s confidence can remain unrattled, compared to a game in which he is forced to make a number of strenuous saves.

That strong Howard performance resulted in zero first-half shots for the Bison and just van der Merwe’s second career shutout, his first since last September. It was an almost flawless performance against a rough Howard team that averaged 7.1 shots per game last season.

Against the Eagles, however, the Colonials’ defense had van der Merwe scrambling around the box, unable to stop the 15-yard blast, header and 11-yard punch-in that all put American on the scoreboard.

It remains to be seen which unit will show up for the coming games, but if Sunday is any indication of what is to come, van der Merwe can trust he has help with some of that weight. Jones hopes his goalie will be energized by the defensive turnaround going forward.

“He’s been playing well, but we conceded some cheap goals on Friday,” Jones said. “He’s a goalkeeper, so any time he gets a clean sheet, it gives him that confidence going into the next game.”

Part of the inconsistency can be attributed to a lack of time playing together by this defensive unit. There is no shortage of skill on the back line, but injuries have led to instability in recent years and have prevented any one group of players from establishing themselves as the core defensive line.

Junior and reigning team MVP Andri Alexandersson anchors the Colonials’ defense in the center and is expected to play nearly every minute of game time this season. He has been joined chiefly by classmate Matthew Scott, senior Abdul Shaban and rookies Miles McClearn, Tobi Adewole and Sam Summerlin on the back line thus far.

Scott was an Atlantic-10 All-Rookie selection in 2011, but missed all of last season with an injury. His return could prove valuable, but at the same time, the missed play is a potential cause for concern.

Shaban brings experience as well, but also missed significant playing time with an injury last season. He entered the game as a substitute on Friday, but started on Sunday, and his senior leadership in the presence of many young players may lead to good results.

Until the younger players, like McClearn and Adewole, have a chance to get to know each other better on the field, it seems that Jones’ move to put more experience on the back line will be effective.

The Colonials’ next chance to improve upon their communication and defense comes on the road this Friday against LIU Brooklyn, and Sunday against NJIT.

“Next weekend will be a tough road trip, and we need to keep that momentum going, just one game at a time,” Jones said.

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