By Rob Rose
For the first time in two seasons, the men’s soccer team will begin the year without the title of defending MAAC champion. After winning the conference championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2016, Rider suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to Fairfield in the championship game last season.
The Broncs will attempt to reach the championship round in the MAAC for the fourth straight year, but will have to do so without two key members of their title-winning teams. Forward Jose Aguinaga and goalkeeper David Pastuna graduated over the offseason and their spikes will not be easy to fill.
Aguinaga, who was selected by the New York Red Bulls in the fourth round of the 2018 Major League Soccer (MLS) Superdraft leaves the Broncs without an elite playmaker. The 23-year-old left Rider as the school’s all-time assist leader with 32 assists and scored 18 goals during his career.
Meanwhile, in the net, Pastuna started all 19 games, posting five cleans sheets and earning MAAC Defensive Player of the Week three times last season.
“David was a role model of mine while he was here,” said freshman goalkeeper Garrett Potter. “They are really, really big shoes to fill. He was just a great guy and a great goalkeeper.”
Despite the loss of two key players from last season’s team, Rider was picked as No. 2 in the MAAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, one spot ahead of defending-champion Fairfield. Canisius received the No. 1 ranking, finishing with 102 total voting points to the Rider’s 101.
Why are the Broncs so high on the list after losing their goalkeeper and all-time assist leader? The team returns six of its league-high seven players on All-MAAC teams last season.
Graduate student forward Elliot Otmani, junior backs Emmanuel Kouma, Sylvain Coco and the MLS-bound Aguinaga were named to the 2017 All-MAAC First Team. Otmani, Kouma and Coco return this year and were named to the Preseason All-MAAC Team.
Otmani, who led the team with nine goals last season, also enters the year on the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List. The award is presented to the most outstanding player of the year and the preseason list features 31 players.
Additionally, sophomore forward Pablo DeCastro and junior back Arthur Herpreck were named to the All-MAAC Second Team and sophomore midfielder Mathis Catanzaro and DeCastro were named to the All-MAAC Rookie Team.
The 2018 campaign began for Rider at home against a familiar foe, Fairleigh Dickinson. Last season, the Broncs defeated the Knights who were ranked No. 21 at the time, on the road in a victory that fueled a seven-game winning streak and saw Rider reach No. 22 in the top 25 polls.
The teams met at Ben Cohen Field on Aug. 24 and the rematch was hard-fought and featured aggressive play from both teams, including a yellow card against Fairleigh Dickinson’s Ideal Shefqeti for spitting in the direction of sophomore midfielder Aaron Gabriel.
“I thought it was a little chippy tonight,” said Head Coach Charlie Inverso. “It’s the thing you don’t like about college soccer, but, I thought we held our cool pretty well, all things considered.”
Rider opened the scoring on a penalty kick by Otmani in the 11th minute after DeCastro was fouled receiving a throw-in pass from sophomore back Sergio Aguinaga on a heads-up play to catch Fairleigh Dickinson’s defense out of position. Both sides had scoring chances but, at halftime, the Broncs led, 1-0.
The physical play picked up in the second half with four yellow cards, three on the Knights and one on the Broncs’ junior back Aaron Robinson.
Potter got the first chance at replacing Pastuna in the season opener. He got the start over sophomore goalkeeper Zach Morris, who Inverso has said are in competition to earn the starting goalkeeper spot.
“It’s really good because we all push each other,” said Potter. “Every day at practice, everybody is just working hard, pushing each other. We’re really good friends so there’s no hard feelings between who starts and who doesn’t.”
Potter faced 14 shots from the Knights, making three saves but allowed the tying goal in the 80th minute on a header by Ahu Obhakhan. Seconds after the game-tying goal was scored, Fairleigh Dickinson’s Jacob Labovitz was issued a red card and ejected after a poor tackle made on Coco. The Knights were forced to play the remaining 10 minutes of regulation and ensuing overtime with just 10 players.
After a pair of 10-minute overtime periods, the game ended with the two teams tied 1-1.
In an attempt to bounce back from the disappointing draw in their season opener, the Broncs battled against NJIT on Aug. 31.
On a rainy night at Ben Cohen Field, both team’s offenses appeared to be stuck in the mud early on.
The first half ended tied at 0-0, with only two shots taken, both by the Highlanders.
In the second half, the Broncs got out on the attack, blasting nine shots, five of which were on goal. Rider was able to generate a number of scoring chances off set pieces as well, earning five corner kicks to the NJIT’s one.
The Broncs’ second game was just as physical as their first. The match saw a total of 34 fouls and seven yellow cards, four on NJIT and three on Rider.
Tired legs were a factor for the Broncs in their first game, allowing a late goal to tie the contest. Against the Highlanders, it was no different. After a turnover in the Rider offensive end, NJIT countered and Pablo Jimenez blasted a shot past the outstretched arm of Potter for the game-winning goal in the 88th minute.
“You could kind of see the air going out of the balloon, so to speak,” said Inverso. “We want to peak in October or November. So the fitness part will come in time.”
Rider’s next match is home vs. Temple on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.
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