What a difference a year makes.
After winning just five of its 34 games from 2011-2012, the Harvard men’s soccer team came into last season with little to no expectations. Now, one year later, after posting its best season in years, the Crimson enters the 2014 campaign as a frontrunner to win the Ivy League.
Finishing 5-2-0 in conference play last season, Harvard cemented its position as an Ancient Eight contender. And this weekend, the team will have a chance to prove that it can contend against the nation’s best.
The Crimson will open the season on the road Friday against No. 9 Georgetown (0-0-2). The Hoyas, who finished last season with a 14-5-2 record, are tabbed to finish first in the Big East and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. Nonetheless, Harvard coach Pieter Lehrer says his side is ready for the challenge that lies ahead.
“We feel we can compete with anyone nationally,” Lehrer said. “We have to be wise about how we play top teams…but we can win parts of the game that other teams aren’t committed to winning. As we win those, our odds of winning the game continually increases.”
The Crimson will take the field for the first time Friday under the leadership of Lehrer’s new co-captains, junior defender Mark Ashby and senior midfielder Kyle Henderson. The duo will have large shoes to fill, as former captains Ross Friedman and Kevin Harrington combined to record 20 points (4 goals and 12 assists) last season.
“Ross and Kevin were huge voices and leaders on the team, but we consider the team a team of leaders,” Ashby said. “We look at the entire group as being able to step up and lead in different scenarios. Regardless of a freshman or a senior, we consider everyone to have an equal role.”
Having played both Princeton and Penn each of the last four years, Georgetown has grown accustomed to competing against Ivy League teams. And thanks to a California connection, the Hoyas will certainly have some familiarity with the Harvard side.
While working as an assistant at Stanford from 1999-2001, Lehrer worked alongside Georgetown coach Brian Wiese, a former goalkeeper for Dartmouth.
“[Wiese] is a very good defensive coach,” Lehrer said. “He is methodical and that gives us a challenge because we know that we are facing a team that will be extremely well-prepared. It will be two well-prepared teams battling.”
After Friday’s contest, the Crimson will head down the street to take on George Washington (1-0-1) on Sunday. The Colonials are coming off a disappointing 2013 campaign, which saw them go 5-10-2.
One player who will be looking to have an immediate impact for the Crimson this weekend is junior defender Philip Fleischman. The junior was the only member of the Harvard backline to record multiple goals last season, and he’ll be eyeing a few more this year.
“We’ve been working hard out there just trying to take the team forward every day,” Fleischman said. “So it’s exciting that the season is finally approaching. We’ve been working towards this for a while.”
Junior goalkeeper Evan Mendez will likely get the start in net for both contests, following the departure of senior net-minder Brett Conrad. Mendez began last season as the backup but seized the starting job in October, posting a 6-1-1 record and allowing just 0.85 goals per game.
Despite winning six of its last eight games to close the 2013 season, the Crimson opened last year 1-6-2, so the squad will be aiming to set the tone much earlier this time around, beginning with Georgetown.
“We kind of look at each season as its own separate campaign,” Fleischman said. “The second the season ended last year, we just started focusing on this season. And we’ve been focusing on Georgetown since the end of last fall.”
—Staff writer Jake T. Meagher can be reached at email@example.com.