The No. 13 Loyola men’s soccer team is slated to appear in its first NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament since 2011. The Ramblers will face cross-town rival University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) after earning the university’s first ever at-large bid into the tournament.
Head coach Neil Jones, who assumed his position in 2012, is making his third appearance at the tournament.
Loyola’s first at-large bid shows how Jones and his staff have improved the program, according to redshirt senior midfielder and co-captain Ryan Howe.
“Getting an at-large bid is very impressive, and to do it at Loyola for the first time ever is unreal and very exciting,” said the Rockford, Illinois, native. “I think it shows his dedication and his staff’s dedication for the team.”
Although the Ramblers beat the Flames by a 3-1 score in the preseason, Loyola is losing the all-time matchup with a record of 12-15-2 against the Flames. But Jones said he isn’t allowing the team’s past win to dictate its attitude coming into Thursday’s game.
“We won that [preseason exhibition] game, but it’s two different teams now,” said Jones. “They’re a different team than they were back in August, and we’re a different team than we were back in August. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a war.”
The Ramblers are heading into the tournament with a 13-3-1 (6-1-1 MVC) record and a 1.88 goals per game average compared to their 0.81 average in 2011, which was the Ramblers’ last time in the tournament.
UIC, the 2016 Horizon League Champion, enters the tournament with a 9-7-3 overall record and a 5-3-1 record in the Horizon League. The program’s 1.33 shots per game average falls short of Loyola’s average, but the team’s 315 attempted shots this season tops Loyola’s 221.
While the first of six rounds of the tournament is regionally based, UIC’s close proximity and Loyola’s previous membership in the Horizon League serves as a rivalry between the two teams. Even with the stakes raised, the Ramblers’ preparation will not differ heading into tournament play, said Jones. Junior forward Elliot Collier said the players will look at film and use what they’ve learned in practice to come up with the most effective way to take on the Flames.
After coming off a tough 2-1 loss to Missouri State University in the MVC semifinals, the team is looking forward to putting the past behind it and focusing on the upcoming game against UIC, according to Collier.
“The big thing after a loss — and that was a hard loss because we know we deserved to be in the final, if not winning it — we just [have to] stick to what we do, stick to the soccer that we play and have confidence in what we’ve achieved this year,” said Collier.
Loyola is scheduled to host UIC on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. The Ramblers have never won a NCAA tournament game. The winner of this tilt will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament and is expected to face No. 20 University of Notre Dame on Nov. 20 at 5 p.m. in South Bend, Indiana.