A season after falling short in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) title game, the Loyola men’s soccer team has one clear cut task in 2019 — win the MVC and reach the NCAA tournament.
Hosts of this year’s MVC tournament Nov. 14-17, the Ramblers return several impact players and, according to head coach Neil Jones, hold a chip on their shoulder to avenge last season’s 1-0 loss to University of Central Arkansas in the MVC championship game in Evansville, Indiana.
“Last year, being our first conference championship appearance was a big bit of experience of our guys and, obviously, you wished as a program that we could’ve won it,” Jones said. “Even with the loss, I think it kind of removes the monkey off our back and my hope is it gives our guys an edge this fall to look farther and more ambitiously and we hope to return to that same game this year at Loyola as the hosts.”
Jones’ team returns nine major contributors from last season’s team as he attempts to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. Alongside these returners are a quintet of new players to the program which is highlighted by junior transfer Justin Sukow, a midfielder from the University of South Carolina who will bring an eye for goal for the Ramblers as he fills the central attacking midfield role.
“Justin’s a guy who’s super comfortable and smooth on the ball and he’s gonna help keep possession for us as well as another attacking element for us in the midfield that’ll definitely score some goals for us this season,” senior midfielder Aidan Megally said.
Sukow joins seniors Giann Magno and Megally in a midfield that Jones said will be key to his team’s success this season and a major source of strength for the Ramblers in 2019. The trio will service an attacking line of senior striker Chase Wright and sophomore wingers Billy Hency and Fabian Becerra — one that struggled to find consistency in 2018 and managed only 1.11 goals per game all season.
Despite this, Jones said he believes a full year of experience for his attackers will pay major dividends in 2019.
“One of the things we’ve improved a lot and which happens naturally is experience,” Jones said. “Players get older and I think that will be a big thing for us. The starting three we played up front last season was all [first-years] so those guys get older and gain more experience and I think the results will speak for themselves this season.”
Despite a major sense of optimism among the team in serious success this season, the issue still remains of appropriately replacing a series of talented players that left the program this spring. Jones’ squad was hit with graduations of star players in defender Grant Stoneman, and midfielders Tucker Stephenson and Fabian Lifka. Forward Vasco Cardoso also left the program for unknown reasons, and MVC Goalkeeper of the Year Josh Lagudah transferred to the University of Portland.
Even with these losses, Jones remained adamant the talent he’s worked to bring in is more than enough to deliver the results he and the Ramblers expect this season. He also said the spring season was key in replacing these departures.
“We lost a lot of talent, but we knew they were going to go and we’ve replaced them with good players and defensively, I think we’ll be young but very talented,” Jones said. “I think we had a positive spring season, which is important because of the seniors that leave your program, they’re gone and you get a chance to rebuild your program and get new players in.”
This month, the Ramblers begin their non-conference schedule, which Jones said is built with a major goal in mind — preparing his team for the grind the MVC schedule in which they’ll play every team twice. After the departure of conference foe Central Arkansas this offseason however — who joined the Sun Belt conference — the Ramblers believe they’re the favorites to lift the MVC at the conclusion of the conference season.
“The new round-robin format will be good for us, I think,” Magno said. “I think it’ll give us a chance to properly figure out each of our opponents and give us a good gage on them as we look [toward] the MVC Championship here in Chicago of which, I think, we’re the clear-cut favorites.”
The Ramblers’ season is scheduled to continue Aug. 25 against University of Wisconsin-Madison in an exhibition match in Madison, Wisconsin.