After recording six consecutive shutouts and clocking more than 558 minutes since an opponent scored on them, the Loyola men’s soccer team saw both its shutout and win streaks come to an end against Creighton University on Sept. 27. Creighton scored a goal in the fourth minute of the game.
The Ramblers (7-1-0) are off to their best start in program history, and the NSCAA has recognized Loyola’s accomplishments. At No. 12 in the country, the Ramblers sit in an elite group with many power conference programs. The record for longest time without an opponent scoring is 1,318 minutes, and was set by Michigan State University from Oct. 15, 2009 to Sept. 20, 2011. The Ramblers had a long way to go if they wanted to reach that milestone — they would have needed roughly 8.5 more consecutive shutouts.
Fourth-year head coach Neil Jones said that while a good defense comes from having talented players, creating a dominant defense comes from players completely trusting the culture of that Jones seeks to implement.
“I think [players] have [bought in] for a number of years now,” said Jones. “The first season was a bit of a transitional season, but ever since the start of the 2014 season, I think we’ve seen … definite buy-in from the players … and they’re seeing success.”
They say the best offense is a good defense, but for Jones, the best part of his defense is the offense.
“While our back four has been very strong … it sounds strange to say this, but a lot of our attacking players have been the strongest part of our defense,” Jones said. “The harder that they work, the harder it is for the other team to get the ball close to our goal.”
Last year, the team scored 19 goals. Eight games into this season, Loyola already scored 15 goals. Having a dominant defense allows those defensive players to score goals, adding to the lethality of the team as a whole. Jones said although he is pleased, he is not satisfied.
“I still think we need to clean a lot of things up defensively, despite our ‘success,’” Jones said. “We have given up chances … that could cost us.”
Senior defenseman Kirill Likhovid said that although the top-25 ranking is nice on the surface, it shows how hard it is to break into that elite group, which gives the team motivation to stay competitive.
“This past game against Drake [University], … we weren’t playing how we should have been playing,” said Likhovid, a communication networks and security major from Arlington Heights, Illinois. “We had a little huddle before the second half and we were like, ‘Listen, we’re a top-25 school. We shouldn’t be playing like this.’”
Likhovid said the ranking makes the team more aware of the stiff competition of college soccer, and how hard it is to remain among the best.
“It gives us a little confidence [and] a little bit of swagger to go out there and own the game and make other teams know … that we should be in that spot,” Likhovid said. “When you’re ranked, it puts a target on your back. Other teams want to come out and beat you. We’re undefeated, so people want to give us our first loss, so that gives us even more motivation to stay there and keep it going.”
Likhovid is the only senior on the backline. He said the culture of defense has changed so much over the years that it is now almost unrecognizable.
“It’s been a really cool thing to watch how the dynamics of the team have changed,” Likhovid said. “I always have these moments like, ‘Geez, when I was a [first-year], we gave up 36 goals, and now, we get upset when we give up a shot.’ Looking back on the whole journey, it’s been crazy to see how expectations have changed.”
While defensive mentality has transformed, the team’s end goal has not. The Ramblers have not made the NCAA national tournament since 2011, and in three trips to the tournament in program history, they have never won a game.
Jones said the team’s sights are set on getting that first tournament win, and the players are responding well to the national spotlight that comes with being in the top-25.
“They’ve responded well because nothing [has] changed,” Jones said. “They still understand that what we really want to achieve is still in the future. It’s not like we achieve our ranking and the season is over. This is just the beginning. It’s been a great start, but it’s just that — a start.”
With its loss to No. 10 Creighton University, the team’s shutout streak may have ended, but the nation knows the Ramblers’ defense is among the best. The team looks to get back in the win column and start a new shutout streak against the University of Central Arkansas on Oct. 1.