NKU men’s soccer preview: Team embracing the challenges of spring season

12 newcomers join the program for the 2021 season

February 9, 2021

As the Northern Kentucky University men’s soccer team begins the 2021 spring season, one that will look different and present challenges that no prior season has brought with it, there is one adjective that Head Coach Stu Riddle wants his team to embrace as games begin: adaptable. 

With widespread COVID-19 testing, a ten-game, conference-only schedule and limited fans in attendance for the duration of the season, it is safe to say that this spring season will be unprecedented in nature. But Riddle and the Norse are determined to not let that define the way that this season ultimately goes.

“If we get angry and upset about it, it’s not going to help us be successful at the end of the day. We have got to be open-minded and just adaptable,” Riddle said.

The players tried to use the time that they were able to be around each other and took that message of adaptability to heart, finding ways to strengthen their team bond in a safe manner over the offseason. Some players even found it easier to get to know their new teammates off the field, without the element of soccer.

“I felt it was a little bit easier getting to know people without the pressures of soccer involved,” junior forward Dylan Bufton said.

Like all NKU athletic programs during the pandemic, the men’s soccer team has dealt with the increased protocols designed to keep the team safe from COVID-19, but they have also dealt with another issue that few other NKU teams had to endure. 

With 14 players on the roster hailing from outside of the United States, including three each from Norway and Canada, the players had options when it came to participating in team soccer when the fall season was postponed in 2020.

“When they found out that there was not going to be a fall season, but they knew that they could stay home and effectively what the NCAA phrased as ‘opt-out’ and play matches in their home countries, it made more sense for them to do that because they didn’t have the widespread problems that we were having here in the United States,” Riddle said.

For the NKU men’s soccer team, the changes that have been introduced for the 2020-21 season are not just off the field, but within team personnel as well.

The Norse, coming off a disappointing 2019 season in which the team finished 7-10-1 and missed the 2019 Horizon League Tournament, now lose their top four scorers (Alex Greive, Connor Probert, Alex Willis and Sam Mason) as well as their top goalkeeper Baj Maan. 

Riddle said that after speaking candidly with other Horizon League coaches during the offseason about what they thought of the Norse in 2019, the consensus was that they had a lot of talent, but were not successful in playing as a unit and sticking together. The 2021 version of the Norse is looking to change that.

“Right now we have got a group that is so bought in, and they are a team, and I think that unity and strength is going to be a really important part for us this year,” Riddle said. 

One of the toughest losses to overcome will be the loss of Greive, who departed the program following a 2019 season in which he led the Horizon League in goals with 15, and was named to the All-Horizon League Second Team, along with Probert.

“If we can do it by committee, rather than just relying on one, two or three pieces, I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape and we will actually be a more solid, well-rounded unit at that point as well,” Riddle said about replacing the production that these players leave behind.

To compensate for these losses, the Norse are bringing in 12 newcomers, headlined by a pair of transfers in forward Sam Robinson from Cincinnati and Bufton from Tyler Junior College in Texas.

Robinson is one of three players from the University of Cincinnati that has transferred to NKU following the discontinuation of Cincinnati’s men’s soccer program, along with midfielder Kyle Healy and midfielder Ben Hegge.

“When UC cut our program, NKU was one of the first schools to reach out, so immediately they were on my radar,” Robinson said about his decision to come to NKU. 

With their prior experience playing soccer at the college level, the Norse expect both Robinson and Bufton to play a major role in scoring the ball this spring. Returning contributors, midfielder Ryan Godding and forward Gianni Bouzoukis will also play prominent roles as the top returning point scorers from 2019.

Sophomore forward Brodie Sallows will also take on more of an increased role in the offensive attack after starting 10 games in 2019.

Defensively, the Norse return several players who have starting experience in senior Justin Earle and junior Stian Jørgenson. 

“We spoke with the boys about more defenders needing to score goals from corner kicks and free kicks when they come up and they’re involved,” Riddle said. “We need to share the load amongst the team.”

In 2019, the Norse felt that they were in terrific shape defending the net, where the goalkeeper Maan was able to record 70 saves with 1.59 goals against average per game. Now, Maan has signed a contract to play in Canada, his home country, meaning the Norse will be turning to a new set of players to try to keep the opposing team off the scoreboard.

NKU is now left with two primary goalkeepers, junior Daniel Bermingham and sophomore Josiah Pokopac, both of whom figure to earn prominent time in the goal right away for a team that will be counting on them to step up right away.

“These situations just give someone else an opportunity to shine and that’s what these two are going to get,” Riddle said. “They’re going to get an opportunity to do what they wanted, which is to come and play college soccer and it’s up to them to take that opportunity and shine.”

Of course, with 12 newcomers joining the program, the Norse will also be welcoming a large freshman class, with eight players joining the team in their first year of college.

“We feel like we have assembled a group of talented players that are completely bought in to how we want to work and play,” Riddle said about the incoming players.

Freshman midfielder and forward Deryn Armstrong is one player that has impressed the team in practice, and will be looking to make an immediate impact in the starting lineup, as well as midfielder Roberto Burlew, and defender Andrès Zaffino.

The Norse kicked off the 2021 spring season with a home match last Thursday against Detroit Mercy, losing a closely contested battle, 2-1. The team will be home once again on Wednesday, Feb. 10 for a match against Milwaukee. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.

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