When Neil Roberts began his 33rd year coaching the Boston University men’s soccer team in August, the roster he had at his disposal was unlike the one he had last fall – or even the one he envisioned having this fall.
Roberts’ squad had a number of key contributors from last year’s team graduate, but there was another unlikely departure: midfielder Anthony Viteri. Viteri, a native New Yorker who transferred to BU for the start of the 2015 season, stepped away from the game due to a slew of concussions over the past few years.
Through roughly one month of the season, the Terriers (2-5-1, 1-0 Patriot League) have found momentum in recent games, but Roberts said that losing Viteri, who would have been a senior this year, was a major blow.
“When we lost Anthony, it just kind of took our leadership away,” Roberts said. “He was a special player for sure and he could change a game, but I think what we lost when he had to stop playing was just the work ethic and the attitude. Anthony was just driven to be a professional.”
The team’s new-look roster did not respond well through the first five games, during which BU was shut out 13-0.
As someone who could singlehandedly break down a defense, Viteri’s presence has been missed on the offensive end. He was tied for the team lead in points (18) in 2016 and was selected to the Patriot League All-Conference First Team for the second consecutive season.
Midfielder David Asbjornsson, who was named 2015 Patriot League Defender of the Year, and Felix De Bona, who now plays professionally with the Finnish club Ekenäs IF, were two other graduating seniors whose roles Roberts is still looking to fill.
After an 0-5 start, though, it appears that the Terriers are finding their form. They have a pair of wins and a tie over their last three games, and await a matchup with Brown University on Tuesday night.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Roberts said. “This team, and it’s due to a lot of circumstances – it’s just kind of a work in progress right now. I think they’re doing a good job at being patient and working on things and just trying to get better.”
The Terriers have scored the second-fewest goals in the conference, but Roberts points to possession as the main area of concern moving forward. However, he maintained that cleaning up defensively is a long process, and said, “I don’t see us probably ever getting to where we wanna be this year on that.”
BU has gone with as many as four freshmen starters this season, and with such a young team, it can take time to get into an offensive rhythm. Through eight games, senior midfielder Adam Sheikali has taken the lead on offense with three points, including the game-winning goal against Harvard University on September 16.
Roberts and his coaching staff also hope that the sophomores, especially forward Matt McDonnell and midfielder Jerry Ozor, take the next step.
“McDonnell’s coming off an injury over the summer so he’s trying to play himself into shape and he’s starting to get there,” Roberts said. “We need [McDonnell] to get some goals for us. He’s got one, but we need him to hopefully get six or seven goals.”
After senior midfielder David Amirani suffered what appeared be a season-ending injury against Princeton University, Roberts said Ozor could end up playing a more central role in the team’s offense.
The Terriers have also been looking to find consistency in net, where they lost former Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year Matt Gilbert to graduation. Freshman William Bonnelyche of Sweden has started five of the last six games, but sprained his ankle in warmups against American University on Saturday.
While he is sidelined, Roberts said that BU will go with sophomore goalkeeper Michael Bernardi, who made six saves in his spot-start shutout of the Eagles (1-7-1, 0-1 Patriot League).
When asked whether he would go with the hot hand once Bonnelyche is healthy, Roberts deferred.
“No, they’re two different type goalkeepers,” he said. “Mike is a little bit quicker and agile, but William is taller and can handle balls into the box better. I think one’s weakness is the other’s strength type-thing.”
With Bernardi getting the start against a stout Brown (4-1-1) offense on Tuesday, Roberts said the focus will not be on stopping one player, but limiting the Bears’ chances.
“They’re really not really set up as an individual, they’re just collectively a solid team,” Roberts said. “Obviously their long throw-ins and their free kicks are where they get most of their goals from, so it’s just a matter of us being able to deal with that. And then, just play good defensive soccer.”
He added: “There’s really nobody that’s break you down individually like a Viteri would do.”
But there is a great deal of talent on Brown’s roster, such as junior transfer Toby Howell. The former Big East All-Academic selection leads the team with a pair of goals and five points.
For the Terriers to defeat Brown for the second time in as many years, they’ll have to find ways to create offense and score on senior Joey Cipicchio, who has played every second in net and owns three shutouts.
“They’re always good defensively,” Roberts said. “I mean that’s just been Brown forever. And because of that, it always keeps them in games. They always keep it close and so they’re hard to break down. And that’s when you do get your opportunities you gotta be able to take advantage of them.”
For the full conversation with BU men’s soccer coach Neil Roberts, go to this Soundcloud link.