With a 3-3 record as it closes out its non-conference schedule, the Loyola men’s soccer team heads into Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play Sept. 22 against Drake University.
The Ramblers are struggling this season, most recently suffering back-to-back losses at Loyola Soccer Park — a 6-1 drubbing to Oakland University and a 1-0 overtime loss to Northwestern University. The team’s struggles can be seen in their inability to score, as this season they’ve been shut out five times already, and are only mustering .8 goals per game.
Now, the team looks to its conference slate to get back on track and reach the NCAA tournament, according to midfielder Fabian Lifka.
“We’ve had some tough results so we’re trying to work on all aspects of our game,” Lifka said. “It’s always important at first to get your starters going and prepared because the MVC is very tough because every team is very consistent.”
Heading into MVC play, head coach Neil Jones said the Ramblers will have to work hard to find their best form and achieve their overall goal of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.
“It’s a tough league because every game matters so much, because there’s only six games, so every point that you can obtain during league play is very much sought after,” Jones said.“You’ve got to be playing your best that time of year because every game is very difficult and every game is a challenge.”
The team will have several conference challengers in its way, including perennial contender Bradley University (11-7-3) in 2017, and last season’s MVC tournament champion Central Arkansas University (9-11-1). However, Jones said the Ramblers have their eye on preseason favorite and last year’s regular season champions, Missouri State University (9-5-3).
“Missouri State is always up there in the league and they’re picked to finish number one,” Jones said. “They’re a team that’s always stout defensively and difficult to break down and they’re full of well-coached and hard working players.”
The players said they need to secure a top-two seed to give them a favorable semi-final matchup at the conference tournament in Evansville, Indiana. This is due to the top two overall teams in the conference earning semi-finals berths and only needing two wins to capture the MVC conference title, and an NCAA tournament bid.
“In all reality, we have to win that conference tournament to advance to the NCAAs and we’d prefer to get a top-two seed and advance straight to the semi-finals,” Jones said. “But [there are] no easy games in this conference.”
The conference schedule, which includes multiple weeks where the team will play twice, could prove demanding, according to All-MVC defenseman Grant Stoneman, but he said he believes the team is prepared for the schedule and its demands.
“The key is to plan a lot over the summer for this schedule and if you do that, you’re pretty well set up for the fall and I know a lot of our guys did that, which will definitely benefit us,” Stoneman said. “Over the summer, you’ll be playing two times a week. So the quicker you get into that groove of playing, the better.”
Loyola is scheduled to begin its conference season with Drake, which has recorded victories over University of Illinois at Chicago and Butler University — both top-20 programs this season. The Ramblers will look to hit the ground running in conference play, according to Jones, who said he believes their best soccer is ahead of them.
“It’s becoming more well-known to us what our best group is,” Jones said. “We’ve shuffled around a decent amount in the first four games here partly due to injuries and trying to find our best lineup that’s gonna put us in the best position to challenge for a Missouri Valley championship.”
Loyola’s conference schedule is scheduled to begin Sept. 22 against Drake at Loyola Soccer Park.