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Talented Bulls erratic as MAC play nears

On the heels of a successful trip to England this spring, the University at Buffalo men’s soccer team had every reason to be eager for fall.

The arrival of towering 6’5 striker Scott Doney, a transfer from Marshall University, immediately made returning All-Mid-American Conference first-team selection Russell Cicerone more dangerous, and the duo helped the Bulls to an 8-1-1 spring record, including a spotless 4-0 mark in England.

“We treated England like it was a season,” senior midfielder-forward Marcus Hanson explained. “Coach had us training hard in fitness, and every game we were treating like a D1 game. We tried to translate that into this year coming. Some spring seasons, you kind of take them off -- guys were competing for spots in England and it was a good environment.”

Senior Marcus Hanson, left, wants to see his UB career end with a trip to the Mid-American Conference Tournament. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Senior Marcus Hanson, left, wants to see his UB career end with a trip to the Mid-American Conference Tournament. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

From taking in an English Premier League match between Chelsea and Southampton at Stamford Bridge to visiting the Etihad, Manchester City’s home stadium, as well as Wolverhampton and Nottingham Forrest’s grounds, the well-planned excursion was a soccer player’s dream -- but also a brilliant bonding experience [see their Storify].

Team unity and spirit was the big takeaway from the trip to England, UB head coach Stu Riddle said, before adding that only four new additions for 2015 represented a much more manageable turnover than the 15 new players in 2014 and 13 in 2013.

Perhaps most exciting was one of those four newcomers included Real Madrid Academy product Pablo Fernandez-Paniagua Juez, a Spanish striker who’d be the first Real youth product to play in the MAC, adding firepower and prestige to an already blossoming attack.

UB soccer's final stats from the 2015 spring season, in which the Bulls finished 8-1-1. (UB Athletics)

UB soccer's final stats from the 2015 spring season, in which the Bulls finished 8-1-1. (UB Athletics)

Bulls fans must have salivated at the prospect of scoring help for Cicerone, who led the Bulls with 10 goals and 23 total points in 2014 despite facing constant double and triple teams, regardless of whether he was employed out wide or just behind the strikers. Not surprisingly, the Michigan native was one of two underclassmen to be selected to the All-MAC first team -- Akron’s Adam Najem was the other.

Not everything panned out as head coach Stu Riddle had hoped. In July, Real Madrid Academy’s Pablo was declared ineligible to play for the Bulls, and Doney limped into preseason after missing half of his summer season with FC Buffalo due to a flare up of chronic ankle problems.

Still able to trot out a side with a bonafide superstar, above-average familiarity and a big, physical defense, UB picked up a few sound results -- a 3-1 dismantling of Belmont and a 4-2 thumping of rival Canisius -- before the wheels started to fall off.

Russell Cicerone, in white, is UB's talisman -- a dynamic winger or central midfielder with the pace and finishing ability to sway any match. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Russell Cicerone, in white, is UB's talisman -- a dynamic winger or central midfielder with the pace and finishing ability to sway any match. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Riddle’s side would go seven games and 26 days before its next win, a 2-0 blanking of a Cornell program wallowing in a down year.

“We’d been speaking all week heading into the Stony Brook game about sometimes winning in ugly fashion,” Riddle admitted, “and just making sure you’re competitive and maybe not playing attractive futbol but coming out on top.”

Yes, the win over Cornell was not pretty, and spells of attractive soccer have been few and far between, causing some strife within the team. The 2-2 draw against lowly Niagara on Sept. 20 was unquestionably the low point of the Bulls’ season, after which Riddle called out his team’s “lack of fitness and lifestyle choices.” For all the talk of a tighter bond among teammates and greater clarity in roles from the spring, UB enters the October MAC slate with more questions than answers.

Despite no reports of an injury, Cicerone wasn’t in the lineup at all against Stony Brook on Sept. 24, and his frustration with his teammates seems to grow by the game. A fiery player with a habit of squabbling with referees, the Bulls’ No. 7 could be cast as an immature star, but in truth, his competitive nature -- and perhaps his personal expectations -- are what get him in trouble when circumstances unravel. He did return the following match -- and dented the scoresheet with his sixth goal of the season -- so it’s possible all has been forgiven, but Cicerone’s temperament will be a key storyline to watch as the MAC schedule unfolds.

The Bulls' striker Scott Doney has been a menace up front this year, combining nicely with Cicerone as well. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The Bulls' striker Scott Doney has been a menace up front this year, combining nicely with Cicerone as well. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

“Sometimes we have to all pull together in the right direction,” said Riddle cryptically after the win over Cornell. “I think we’re getting that now.”

Riddle’s dissatisfaction with his squad is made even more clear by his tinkering with his lineup. Hanson, an attacker whose work-rate is an asset, has been left out of the starting lineup the last two games, with Nicolay Netskar getting the nod in his stead. The battle for the second striker role -- between Hanson, Netskar, Steven Stryker and true freshman Hunter Walsh -- has been open for much of the non-conference slate.

Beginning the season as the incumbent left back, junior Daniel Cramarossa -- who owns the best touch on the Bulls -- has been switched to a defensive midfield role, with Alec Fisher swapping sides to left fullback and Austin Place settling in on the right.

While St. Joe’s graduate Braden Scales locked down the right midfielder spot with a strong preseason, once first-choice center mid Braden Culver has seen his minutes reduced -- his involvement is largely dependent on where Cicerone is stationed, which is often dictated by the flow of each game.

UB's Braden Culver began the season with a starting job, but now has become a part-time player for Stu Riddle's program. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

UB's Braden Culver began the season with a starting job, but now has become a part-time player for Stu Riddle's program. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

“I feel like I’m going to move around a lot, [to] wherever I can find space,” Cicerone explained earlier in the season. “There’s usually two or three [defenders] around me, so it’s frustrating but I just have to find pockets of space. Stu’s a great tactician -- he’ll know where to put me to get me on the ball.”

Doney is rounding back into form again, setting up both goals against Cornell and earning a “that’s the best I think he’s played in our shirt” compliment from his head coach. He may not be as adept at winning aerial challenges as you’d expect a 6’5 striker to be, but his workrate is very good, he’s confident in laying the ball off and he’s definitely not soft.

The UB Bulls celebrate winning the Big 4 Shield from the Canisius Griffins. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The UB Bulls celebrate winning the Big 4 Shield from the Canisius Griffins. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The Bulls’ common goal remains the same, though, and that’s reaching the program’s first Mid-American Conference tournament since 2011, and the first in Riddle’s three years at the helm.

The truly meaningful matches begin Oct. 9, when Akron -- winner of three-straight MAC titles -- visits UB Stadium. The talent is there for the Bulls to be competitive, but to reach their goal, UB must be organized, poised and strong, both physically and mentally.

Why the Bulls will surprise in the Mid-American Conference: In the win over Cornell, UB proved it could win ugly, and that could be the recipe for success in the Mid-American. The Bulls have the defenders -- Slotemaker and Forrester, especially -- to match up physically with opposing attacks, and Cicerone is a threat to score at any moment. All the Bulls would need is an upset or two at home -- like over West Virginia on Oct. 16 -- and the goal of reaching the MAC Tourney could be a reality.

Why UB will sputter in conference play: The MAC is strong this year. Here's the order of RPIs as of Sept. 28:

Akron -- No. 6
Northern Illinois -- No. 52
Bowling Green -- No. 78
Western Michigan -- No. 89
West Virginia -- No. 128
UB -- No. 192

In other words, the cold, hard mathematics don't look fondly upon UB's chances, but numbers don't dictate results in conference play.

Unheralded Bulls to watch: Scales, a local product from St. Joe's, has been a pleasant surprise for UB this year. The right winger covers a ton of ground up and down the flank, and his crosses are sublime at times. Even more impressively, he's put himself in position to score more this year, and although his ability convert isn't the most consistent, his two goals rank third on the team. Also, true freshman Hunter Walsh, who sees around 10 minutes per match, and junior Steven Stryker, who had a strong start to the season, give the Bulls some depth up front.

Best healing wishes to: Junior Ryan Pereira, a contributor in 2014 who's missed the entire 2015 campaign with a broken metatarsal in his foot.

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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