RICHMOND, Va. – While the 4-0 score is somewhat misleading, there’s no doubt VCU’s season-opening loss to UAB at Sports Backers Stadium on Aug. 30 was a bit of a gut punch to a team with high expectations.
But since that ego-bruising debut, the Rams (3-1-1) have been splendid. VCU followed with a draw with No. 9 New Mexico, then went on the road to topple a 13th-ranked Maryland squad, seventh-ranked Akron and Niagara, an NCAA Tournament team a year ago. This week, the Rams rocketed up the NSCAA Top 25 Poll to No. 8, the school’s highest since 2004.
In some ways, the Rams say, that disappointing loss to a solid UAB team, like a bucket of cold water to the face, was a wake-up call.
“I think that game was the best thing that happened to us this season,” says forward Devon Fisher. “It was a big eye-opener for our defense.”
Although the Rams outshot UAB 12-8 and had 15 corners to the Blazers’ two, VCU couldn’t crack the scoreboard and couldn’t get enough stops defensively. What followed was a week’s worth of defensive drills and instruction that appears to have shored up the Rams’ early deficiencies. The Rams have allowed just three goals in the last four games and posted back-to-back 1-0 shutouts last weekend at Akron and against Niagara.
Fisher says the Rams owe much of their recent success to the darkest night of their young season.
“After the game, Coach told us we have to learn from it,” he said. “He said, if we learn from it, it’ll be a good thing. We weren’t really upset, we just knew that we had to turn everything back around after that.”
VCU Head Coach Dave Giffard says the Rams will continue to play the attacking style they always have, but with greater defensive emphasis. Due to graduation and injuries, Giffard says the VCU isn’t as seasoned up front as it was a year ago, and until the Rams gain more experience, they’ll have to limit the number and quality of the opposition’s offensive chances.
“We felt we kind of needed to lock up our house a bit,” Giffard said. “I think what our guys have done a really good job of is really just focusing on getting better each time out. And we did get a lot better at tightening up our house and being much tighter defensively.”
Giffard says that for much of last season, with players like Jason Johnson – later selected in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft – and Romena Bowie and Mario Herrera Meraz at full strength, the Rams were more than happy to play wide open games that featured 3-2 or 4-3 scores. But moving forward, VCU will have to be able to win both wide-open and low-scoring games.
“We knew coming into this year that an area that we had to grow was we had to be able to win 1-0,” he says. “We didn’t know how that was going to be. We didn’t know how it was going to be aligned, but we knew in tough games against good teams we had to be able to grind out 1-0 wins.”
Hot off a pair of 1-0 victories, the Rams have thrust themselves into the top 10. But while Giffard says his team has certainly grown confident from those wins, he’s not going to let them get caught up reading their own press clippings.
“We’ve addressed that before,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve had years early in my career where we got off to hot starts where we were No. 2 or No. 3 in the country and we start 6-0, 5-0, something like that and in the end, we end up missing out on an at-large berth and not even getting in, so none of that stuff matters.”
Fisher, who has a pair of goals this year, says the team is taking Giffard’s message to heart.
“We’re playing well, but we’re not playing to our full potential,” he said. “Yeah, we beat those teams, but we could’ve played even better than we did, and the scores could’ve been a lot different. We can’t let that stuff get to our head because it’s only the first five games. We haven’t done anything yet. We just need to be humble and continue winning and at the end let that all figure itself out.”