After a disappointing 2016 season, the Tigers look to roar back to life in 2017.
by Nathan Shelby
The University of Memphis men’s soccer program heads into their 2017 season looking to build upon the successes and failures of 2016. The Tigers, while finishing with an 8-8-1 overall record last year, could only manage a 2-4-1 conference record, with losses coming against Cincinnati, SMU, USF, and Tulsa. This record lead to a dead last finish in the 8 team American Athletic Conference.
Despite this, Head Coach Richard Mulrooney feels that last year’s result is more a reflection of the league than any inability of his team, reflecting, “I mean, our conference is loaded, it’s a good conference. You have Connecticut who’s won national championships before, you have SMU who’s stacked with kids from the Texas area, and Tulsa who’s represented the conference in the NCAA tournament the last three years. Pick your poison with it, there’s really good teams. Take Tulsa for example. They’re really well coached and they have a ton of very experienced players. Last year we went into that game and, if we win it, we probably finish second in the conference. We lost it, and so we finished dead last. That shows you how much parity we have in this conference.”
Coach Mulrooney, whose 15-year professional career included 14 appearances for the US Men’s National Team, enters into his 4th year as Head Coach with a 20-25-7 record for the Tigers. It is his hope that an emphasis on a stronger mentality will make the difference this season. “I hope our team has a chance in every game. We might go up 1-0, but I want us to have the drive to make it 2-0. If we go down 1, I don’t want us to put the white flags up and say, ‘you know what, it’s not meant to be today.’ If I can see that fight out of the guys, that never say die attitude and relentlessness, I can live with that. As we know in sports, even if you go down, that fighting spirit means you are never out of a game. That’s what I want from these guys. I know the talent is there, I know the desire is there, and that attitude is what I really want for the guys. I mean, the sky is the limit for how far this team can go if we can stick together and have that never say die attitude.”
The Conference Grind
Those who paid attention last season would have to agree with the coach, as 3 of the 4 conference losses the Tigers suffered were by 2 goals or less. What is perhaps most interesting about the challenge the Tigers face in a loaded American Athletic Conference this year is the fact that, of Memphis’ 7 home games this year, only 2 will take place on their home pitch at the Park Avenue Campus. Both Coach Mulrooney and last year’s leading goal scorer, Sophomore Midfielder Jackson Morse, feel that this reality makes every single game important for the season. “Our last two games of the season are finally going to be on our home pitch,” said Coach Mulrooney. “We’ll have our own locker rooms, and I’m looking to having our own students watch the games. Having said that, we still have games at Mike Rose and CBU that are big games. If you only circle a couple and forget about the rest, that just won’t cut it this year.” Morse echoed this, adding, “We want every conference game. They are all rivalry games.”
Looking at the conference competition this year, the American is poised to be dominated by the same 4 teams as the last few years. The Preseason Coaches’ Poll pegs #24 UConn to take the title this year, receiving 4 out of the 8 first place votes available. Tulsa (1), USF (2), and SMU (1) shared the remaining 4 first place votes. The coaches of the American feel that it will be a tough season for the Tigers, and pegged them to finished in last place once again. Morse was the lone Tiger voted to the Preseason All-Conference team.
A Look Ahead
Even with these poor predictions, Coach Mulrooney feels that, if his players can develop the toughness to compete when they are down, the results will come. When asked about his goals for the season, Mulrooney replied, “you know you always want to say your goals are Conference Championships and NCAA Championships, and I hope that drives the guys, but behind the scenes I just want to be competitive in every match and every training session. If you are competitive there, the only thing you can do is improve. Set your goals to become more fit, more technical, and if you do that as a team, you are going to be improved. If you are competitive, you have a chance to win every match.”
Memphis fans have cause to be optimistic about a better season this year however. The Tigers will be hoping to build upon the strength of their attack last year, and they hope it will once again be Morse who will lead the charge. Morse was responsible for 6 goals last year, which amounted to a quarter of the total goals by the team. Despite this success in front of goal, Morse hopes to rise to greater heights this year. “I definitely am looking to achieve even more than last year,” said Morse. “You definitely don’t want to become satisfied with what you did last year.” In addition to this, the Tigers will be returning their assist leader, Junior Midfielder David Zalzman.
Beyond returning talent, the team has also brought in 11 new players, including 4 transfers to the program. Followers of Memphis City FC will be excited to see a fan favorite — Redshirt Senior Midfielder Charles Blankenship — join the list of new transfers after playing 3 seasons at ETSU. Morse feels that all these new faces may actually push the team to be better, stating, “we want to work hard and really build our chemistry. I think we have a special group of guys here, and we have now what we have previously lacked which was depth. We have a lot of that this year, and that really creates great competition during practices so the players that compete the best get rewarded.”
Though many outside the program have low expectations for this team, Mulrooney feels that his team will rise up and make the city proud. “This is a team you will be proud of,” said Mulrooney. “If you can come out and watch a game, they won’t go home disappointed. I think we’ve done a great job marketing it, these players have been working their tail off each and every day, and I truly believe there’s something special with this group. If you come out and see it with your own eyes, you won’t be disappointed.”
The Tigers will begin their season Friday, August 25th in Nashville when they take on Belmont. Fans will not have to wait long for the home opener, however, as that will take place Sunday, August 27th at Mike Rose against the UAB Blazers.
For more information on the men’s soccer team, visit http://gotigersgo.com/index.aspx?path=msoc