After the 2020 Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) fall seasons were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, players and fans alike spent the fall months devoid of their usual soccer fix. However, the Loyola men’s soccer team (1-1-1) is now back to MVC play for the first time in over 15 months.
The Ramblers kicked off their unconventional winter season Feb. 28 when they played Drake University at an indoor facility in Loves Park — where Loyola is set to play its first two home games. The Ramblers notched their second consecutive 0-0 score when they hosted the Bulldogs.
The Ramblers will play each of their four MVC opponents twice — once at home and once away — making for eight games before the April 13-17 MVC tournament. The Valparaiso University men’s soccer team had been a part of the Valley for three years, but the program was discontinued following the 2019 season. Now, the conference is made up of just Missouri State University, Evansville University, Bradley University, Drake and Loyola.
Coming off an NCAA tournament appearance in 2019, Loyola played three non-conference games this season, notching a win, a loss and a tie. Head coach Neil Jones said he feels these games have been good preparation heading into the rest of the Valley season.
However, with only those three games and no competitive matches in the fall, senior midfielder Tyler Biggs said the team was a bit rusty starting out in 2021.
“It’s definitely nice getting those three games under our belt,” Biggs, 22, said. “And they’re not just preseason games, they’re legit games against really good opponents and I think that was really valuable. We’re definitely starting to come together and hit our stride.”
Coming into the MVC season as reigning tournament champions, redshirt junior defender Mike Riley said although it brings them confidence, he feels the Ramblers have a “target on their backs” this year. He said last year their focus was more on beating Missouri State, whereas now it’s more towards upholding what they built in 2019.
Riley said one of the biggest areas the team wants to improve on this year is its goalscoring. He said especially in the games against Marquette University and Depaul University, the Ramblers missed more chances than they would’ve liked.
“We just want to see more goals, we need to score more and just finish our chances when we have them,” Riley, 22, said.
Both Biggs and Riley said the team they’re most excited to play this season is Missouri State. Riley said it will be a high-tension game since it’ll be a rematch of the 2019 MVC Championship game. Jones said the Bears are always a tough team to beat, and they’ll be the Ramblers’ biggest competition in 2021.
At the end of the 2019 season, the NCAA Rating Percentage Index (RPI) ranked Missouri State at No. 15 out of 206 Division I teams — the highest of the five MVC teams that season. Loyola checked in second-highest at No. 40. This year, Missouri State returns almost its entire lineup except for its four seniors, including three of its main starters.
Loyola must adjust to losing three senior players, including 2019 MVC Player of the Year Aidan Megally, along with former junior midfielder Justin Sukow who now plays professionally with Reno 1868 F.C. However, the team also welcomes seven first-years this season. Jones said he thinks his team’s strength this year is going to be the midfield and defense, where the Ramblers have only given up one goal so far.
“I think [the team’s] got a good mix of experience but also youth,” Jones said. “We’ve got some new transfers that are just finding their way within the team and starting to gel … just trying to get everyone on the same page of how we do things at Loyola.”
Biggs said a lot of the first-years have impressed him so far and he thinks they’re a hardworking class of good players. Players will have a unique opportunity to play for Loyola without burning a year of eligibility thanks to new NCAA eligibility rules in the COVID-19 pandemic, which Riley said will be especially helpful to first-years.
As for the veterans, Jones said he foresees his same top players from last year continuing to improve and have good seasons this year. Three players Jones mentioned — senior midfielder Giann Magno, junior midfielder Billy Hency and Biggs — were named to the 2019 MVC All-Conference Second Team. Jones also highlighted sophomore defender Andrew Mitchell, the 2019 MVC Freshman of the Year.
The Ramblers are slated to play their next Valley game when they travel to the University of Evansville March 9. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.