Bill Boyle's Niagara Purple Eagles have started their non-conference slate in unusual fashion, competing in three tournaments - in Nashville, Tenn; Burlington, VT; and Oneonta, NY - before tussling with James Madison last weekend.
Aside from a 2-1 win over Robert Morris University in Oneonta, Niagara has struggled at both ends, scoring a total of four goals in the other six matches, while conceding 18.
The 1-1 draw with St. Bonaventure on Sept. 20 was a step forward for the Purple Eagles, who tightened defensively without sacrificing scoring chances at the other end.
2017 record so far: 1-6-1
2016 record: 4-11-2 overall, 3-6-1 in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Major personnel losses: D Shiquan Lowe, M Fabrizio Chiari, M Adel and Navid Rahman
Major additions: Thirteen newcomers - nine freshmen and four transfers
2017 preseason poll: 10th out of 11 teams
1) Red-shirt senior Zydowicz embraces leadership role: On a rainy night at home against Canisius last fall, senior Konrad Zydowicz was honored for his contributions to the Purple Eagles program. Unless you were close to the team, it seemed like the Rochester native's college soccer race was run.
But Zydowicz is back in the fold for 2017 as a red-shirt senior and graduate student in business, wearing the armband for the first time.
"I've always known since after my red-shirt freshman year that I wanted to play my fifth year of soccer in grad school - and as time went by, I really loved what we were building here at Niagara, especially after last year being honored as an [academic] senior, it didn't really hit home because I knew I'd be back for another year," the Aquinas alum said earlier this summer.
"This year is kind of like my [actual] senior year - we're building the culture and getting together with the new freshmen to show them the ropes, and then I'll come back in four years and watch them be honored on senior night."
Although Zydowicz missed a few matches earlier in the season, he's back to full health for the Purple Eagles' home opener.
2) Value of returnees: Boyle's second year in command is smoother than his first, at least in terms of personnel. Much of the nucleus that won four matches - three of them in the MAAC - returns, including all-freshman selection Mackenzie Roach, dynamic center midfielder Bautista Pedezert.
As a result of the returnees' experience, Boyle has higher expectations for their play during the approaching conference slate.
"Now they know what they can do and what to expect from our opponents, so they have to prepare to play consistently over 90 minutes and over 18 games," said Boyle, whose previous head-coaching experience was four years with Olivet College in Michigan.
"Can you not blow up in adversity? Can you deal with being scored on? Can you come back from a deficit? Can you hold a lead?" he asked, rhetorically. "Now being mature enough to understand those situations, we'll lean on our guys who've been there. Can you get back into a game by playing differently or will you keep playing the same way that put you in that deficit?"
The early indications in 2017 point to a slower-than-hoped learning process, but this campaign isn't a lost cause yet. The newcomers to the side already appreciate the value of the veterans, but they're eager to challenge them.
"Mack and Bauti, Hector [Solorio] and Zulf [Zulfikar Karimi], those guys bring that extra level to training sessions," explained freshman starter Matt Krucko-Moeller. "Those are the guys I'm always trying to push up against and see what I can do against them to push myself to the next level, especially as a freshman, because in the future, that's the kind of guy I want to be on this team."
3) Power of Pedezert: Bauti Pedezert was slated to be a centerpiece on this year's FC Buffalo team - he trained regularly with the National Premier Soccer League side in its first two weeks together - but he unexpectedly headed home to Argentina for family reasons.
Pedezert is back for his junior campaign, and his commitment to a program that's experienced more chaos and turnover than success is admirable. The Argentine is invaluable to his head coach, too.
"Bauti is just a baller - he loves to go onto the field and compete no matter what," Boyle described. "He's a leader but he doesn't know he's a leader quite yet. He just makes people better around him, and he's one of our best players, no question.
"He had to go home and see his family this summer - sometimes the NPSL and PDL [Premier Development League] are tough, especially when you're from South America and you don't get to go home all year."
The upperclassman has scored one goal in seven matches this season, and he's still looking for his first assist.
4) Gerberich, Casey in competition: Niagara has a good problem in goal, as both Williamsville South alum Steve Casey and captain Joel Gerberich are capable starters. Gerberich's 405 minutes so far exceed Casey's 225, and the former has posted superior statistics, making 20 saves and collecting the Purple Eagles' only win.
The rotation is a stark departure from Boyle's approach in 2016, where Casey started 16 of the 18 contests and produced a respectable 1.31 goals against average and an impressive five clean sheets.
5) Canadian-heavy recruiting class: Of the nine freshmen that Boyle signed for this fall, four hail from Ontario, Canada, including starters Krucko-Moeller, Luca Pacheco and Jordan Acevedo. Given the university's proximity to the international border - as well as the aide allotted to Canadian students - recruiting aggressively at academies such as Sigma, Vaughan and Rush.
In addition to finding a niche for young talent, Boyle is more confident in his recruiting class due to the benefits of a full offseason.
"This class we had more time to do a proper cycle where we could evaluate the players for a longer period of time," he explained. "The first class it was taking what we could find, who was still available."
While the long-term prospects of the class are encouraging, it doesn't mean the adjustment period to the speed, physicality and mental challenges of the college game is any shorter.
"I can remember my first college game, running around like a chicken with my head cut off, just drilling some guy and getting a yellow card," Boyle recollected from his own playing days at Hartwick College. "But I look forward to seeing [this recruiting class'] growth and getting the game to slow down for them - allowing them to be the players that they are."
6) Spotlight on Krucko-Moeller: As a replacement for the graduated Lowe, Krucko-Moeller is perhaps the most important piece in the large class. He's not the tallest center back, but he's heady, well-trained and fearless enough to step into the XI from Day One.
"Although I am 6-foot-1, the role of center back is [often] for guys who are even bigger than that," the Burlington, Ont. native said in the preseason. "I think I'm definitely more of a technical, smarter-minded player."
Luca Pacheco, a midfielder who guested briefly for Benfica's (Portugal) youth academy, is another youngster with big potential, and he's carved out an early role as well.
7) Rebuilding a culture: The men's team took a short camping trip in mid-August as one of several means to rebuild a culture that had begun to rot. While the hill sprints and beach sprints were brutal, sharing the grueling work helped foster continuity and build a togetherness that was notably absent, even in Boyle's first year.
"We couldn't make it through a practice without exploding on each other - it was bad," said Boyle of spring practices. "You can't just change a culture in one day - you have to continue hitting them over the head with it. You can't just write it on a poster or stick it on a board and think it's going to be your culture. It's not just four words or three words."
It's tough for fans to appreciate how a well-functioning team is built - they're not present during meals, road trips, video sessions and study halls. After making an ominous reference to "how it was" at Niagara before his arrival, Boyle listed some of his emphases in molding a team.
"You're working [on the field], doing your schoolwork; it's getting guys to prioritize their lives and their thought-process on playing college soccer," he said. "I think the culture is healthy, and that's due to great leadership, like from our captains Konrad [Zydowicz] and Joel [Gerberich]."
8) Can they stay together? Even the best laid plans can unravel when losses mount, and that's the chief worry with Niagara's 1-6 record. No, they're not a very good team. They're unlikely to reach the MAAC playoffs this year.
Will frustrations boil over like they have in years past - the 2012 trip to the NCAA Tournament under Chase Brooks, now at Duquesne, feels like ages ago - or will the Purple Eagles stay bought-in to the program's larger plan?
"We have one goal in mind, and that's the first time in four or five years we've bought into one goal, one mindset you could say," Zydowicz said earlier this season. "In previous years it's been, 'Let's make the playoffs, let's win the MAAC championship,' this year we're really focusing on getting better each and every day, getting 1 percent better at everything we do.
"Therefore when playoffs come, we know we'll be in it, and as everyone knows in the whole world, as long as you make the playoffs, you never know what can happen."
9) Do they have a striker? Well, no, not really. Sophomore Asante Carroll has seized the role for now by scoring on his only two shots of the season - both in a 10-minute span of the second half against Robert Morris, but a No. 9 must be on Boyle's wish list.
Josh Tufino, Mbongeni Tshuma and senior Sergio Lujan are three other contenders for the role, but they've totaled three shots between them so far. Midfielder Zulfikar Karimi paces the team in shots, with 11.
10) Eye on the Battle of the Bridge: Even casual soccer fans can get fired up by the annual Battle of the Bridge rivalry between Niagara and Canisius College, scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at Demske Sports Complex in Buffalo. This year's bout has no choice but to be an improvement over 2016's clash, a 110-minute snoozer on a dismal night on Monteagle Ridge.
BONUS: On BN Soccer's underrated list:
*Center back Borna Juracic - quiet and steady presence in the back four
*Midfielder Matt Lopoyda - had brief tenure with FC Buffalo and with Belmont University, a useful reserve