TROPHY CHASING TAKES ON GREATER IMPORTANCE FOR VCU SOCCER IN ’14

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In four seasons under the guidance of Coach Dave Giffard, the VCU Men’s Soccer program has transformed from an also-ran into a juggernaut. For all the progress made, there are a couple of levels of success that have been elusive. Following an 11-8-2 mark in 2013, the Rams aim to take the next step as a program.

THE BIG BOUNCE; RAMS REBOUND WITH APLOMB

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A season-opening loss to UAB has helped spur the Rams into the top 10.

A season-opening loss to UAB has helped spur the Rams into the top 10.

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.

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FRIEND AND FOE; FORMER ROOMMATES SQUARE OFF FRIDAY

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VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Jared Embick has come a long way from being the guy sleeping on Dave Giffard’s couch.

On Friday, Giffard will find out just how far when he squares off against Embick, his friend and former roommate when 19th-ranked VCU (2-1) meets seventh-ranked Akron (3-1) in the University of Akron Tournament at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Rams will also play Niagara on Sunday to cap the weekend tournament.

Giffard was already a year into his stint as an assistant under Caleb Porter at Akron in 2007 when Embick was added to the staff. Embick says he didn’t have much time to look for an apartment, so he asked Giffard if he could crash on his couch for a few weeks until he found his own place. Nearly a year later, Embick was still on the couch.

“We just worked all the time, so we would just come home, take a ride over to dinner, come back, go to sleep and do it again the next day,” Giffard says of the arrangement. “You know, we had a few barbeques in between.”

The following spring, Embick graduated from the couch when he and Giffard moved into a two-bedroom apartment. They’d stay there until Giffard was named VCU coach following the 2009 season.

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RAMS AIM HIGH WITH LOADED 2013 SLATE

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Fourth-year VCU Coach Dave Giffard calls the Rams' 2013 schedule 'the best in the country'.

Fourth-year VCU Coach Dave Giffard calls the Rams’ 2013 schedule ‘the best in the country’.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU Coach David Giffard isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to scheduling – or when it comes to evaluating the Rams’ 2013 schedule.

“It’s the best schedule in the country, for sure,” he says definitively.

It would be tough to argue against the fourth-year Rams’ coach. Tell him it’s not the best schedule when VCU lines up against one of 11 NCAA Tournament teams from last year. That’s nearly one quarter of the entire field. Tell Giffard he’s taking it easy when one of the eight national seeds VCU is scheduled to play comes calling. The teams on VCU’s schedule have won eight of the last 10 National Championships, so go ahead, construct your argument and convince Giffard that there’s another school with this much heft on its docket. Did we mention that defending National Champion Indiana is coming to Sports Backers Stadium on Oct. 18? Well, there’s that too.

The Rams also host New Mexico (Sept. 6), a national seed last year, national seed and defending Atlantic 10 Champion Saint Louis (Oct. 6), not to mention UAB, Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina, who were all in the NCAA Tournament last fall. VCU will also travel to Giffard’s old stomping grounds at the University of Akron (Sept. 13). The Zips were ranked seventh in the country last year. But don’t let that overshadow trips to Virginia, Wake Forest or Maryland. And that’s without even mentioning the A-10 schedule.

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JOHNSON READY TO LAUNCH MLS CAREER

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VCU's Jason Johnson has signed an MLS Generation Adidas contract and awaits Thursday's league draft.

VCU’s Jason Johnson has signed an MLS Generation Adidas contract and awaits Thursday’s league draft.

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson was selected 13th overall by the Houston Dynamo at the Jan. 17 MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis.

It wasn’t until the eighth grade that VCU’s Jason Johnson first played in an organized soccer game, years after many of his peers. But his career got off to an auspicious start – Johnson scored a goal in that contest. He hasn’t slowed down since.

Earlier this month, Johnson inked his first professional contract with Major League Soccer as part of its Generation Adidas program. Generation Adidas seeks to identify and retain the best college soccer talent in the United States. Players are offered guaranteed multi-year contracts with the league and do not count against a team’s budget or roster limits. Players in the program also receive educational stipends to finish their degrees.

On Jan. 17, Johnson is expected to be one of the top selections in the MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis. Johnson will be the first VCU Soccer player drafted since Dominic Oduro was a second round pick of FC Dallas in 2006. Some rate Johnson as the top forward in this year’s draft. He scored 13 goals this season and a total of 28 in three seasons with the Rams.

“He’s got a unique combination of size, power, strength, speed; his technique is good,” said VCU Soccer coach Dave Giffard. “He strikes the ball well with both feet. He can play in combination. He’s good in the air. I think those qualities together are, they’re not super, super unique, but you don’t see them everywhere. There certainly aren’t many guys in college that have all those qualities.”

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ACCORDING TO PLAN: THE REBIRTH OF VCU SOCCER

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Coach Dave Giffard, 31-17-11 in three years at VCU, directed the Rams back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There were some people who scoffed at the notion presented by Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin this summer, that VCU can win a national championship. But Men’s Soccer Coach Dave Giffard has always operated with that understanding. He talks about winning a national title so naturally in conversation that it doesn’t seem like a matter of if VCU can win one, but rather when.

Giffard was an assistant coach for Akron in 2009 when it reached the College Cup Final against Virginia, and has matter-of-factly approached his job at VCU the last three years a continuous chase for a national title.

On Sunday, he’ll get his first legitimate crack at fulfilling that goal when VCU (12-3-5), the No. 14 overall seed, takes on Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA College Cup at Sports Backers Stadium at 7 p.m. The match will mark the Rams’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight.

“When it was announced, it was a little bit emotional,” Giffard said. “This group of players has never been there. They’ve never been through that. Even for our staff, our group’s been through an awful lot.”

But the team that will meet Syracuse Friday is much different one than Giffard presided over when he arrived after the 2009 season. VCU, once a nationally recognized power, sank to 5-10-2 in 2009 and finished the year 161st in RPI. From 2005-09, VCU advanced to the conference tournament semifinals just once.

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MEN’S SOCCER ROLLS ON

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This is a little late, but great job by VCU Men’s Soccer Friday. The Rams (10-2-4, 6-1-1 A-10) thumped 12th-ranked Xavier 4-1 and have now vaulted into first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference. VCU will try to lock up the No. 1 seed for the A-10 Tournament Friday at Richmond. It’s not that far, come out and cheer the Rams to a win.

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I’ve got to imagine the Rams are ranked again when the NSCAA Coaches Poll comes out later Tuesday. In addition, VCU is making a serious run at an at-large bid to NCAA Tournament. The Rams were 28th in RPI before their win over Xavier, who was 25th, so they’ll get another nice bump.  Hard as it may be to believe, VCU has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2004, when it staged a dramatic run to the quarterfinals.

Here’s a quick look at the top of the A-10 race. Note that the Rams own a head-to-head win over Charlotte earlier this season.

Conference  Overall
W L T Pts. W L T Pts.
Charlotte 6 1 1 19 12 2 3 39
VCU 6 1 1 19 10 2 4 34
Saint Louis 6 2 0 18 12 4 0 36
Temple 5 1 2 17 9 5 3 30

COULD DEFEAT OF CHARLOTTE BE TURNING POINT FOR VCU?

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VCU’s 4-1 win over 2011 National Runner-Up Charlotte Friday is sure to turn a few heads.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shortly after his team celebrated on the pitch in one cheering, chanting, dancing huddled mass, flanked on one side by the VCU Pep Band, horns blaring, and a crowd of students on the other, VCU Soccer Coach Dave Giffard aimed to be a voice of reason.

“It’s a good win and a good result for us,” the Rams’ third-year coach said flatly. “I think what it means to the team is we won the first game in the conference.”

Given the decisiveness VCU’s 4-1 victory Friday night over 13th-ranked Charlotte, the National Runner-Up in 2011, and the emotion that spilled onto the field following the match, could this triumph possibly be distilled into the “just another conference win” category? Charlotte (6-2-2, 0-1 A-10) had lost just once this season and returned the bulk of its College Cup squad from 2011.

Four different players scored goals for the Rams (5-1-3, 1-0 A-10), who attacked the lower third of the field efficiently and aggressively. In the process, VCU earned its first win over a ranked team since 2006 and dealt Charlotte its worst loss in three years.

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RAM TOUGH: REFOCUSED VCU RETURNS TO WIN COLUMN

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Dave Giffard's Rams improved to 6-4-0 overall and 1-1-0 in the CAA Saturday night.

There were a lot of happy faces at Sports Backers Stadium Saturday night following VCU’s got-to-have-it, 1-0 victory over a streaking George Mason squad, but possibly none brighter than that of Marisa Giffard, wife of Rams’ Coach Dave Giffard.

VCU’s recent four-game losing streak was starting to wear thin over at Casa de Giffard. Dave and Marisa began dating while he was an assistant at national powerhouse Akron, and he said during that time, the Zips might’ve lost two games total. This was entirely new territory.

“My wife’s pulling her hair out,” the VCU Coach joked. “She’s like, ‘This is terrible. We’ve got to win. I hate when we lose.’ Like anybody, I’m competitive and I get a little grouchy, my staff gets a little grouchy and you know, I’d prefer not to do that again.”

While a grouchy Giffard may have been no fun at home, it appears to be just what the Rams needed to pull out of a four-game tailspin. Giffard spent that stretch questioning his team’s overall toughness, so he dropped the hammer on his young squad in practice this week. Training sessions were long, grueling challenges of intestinal fortitude.

“We were pretty tough on the guys, and they needed it and they knew they needed it,” Giffard said. “As the week went on, we functioned more and more under extreme fatigue and realized that, you know, you’re not going to die.”

His strategy, a rarity for this point during the season, worked Saturday. VCU matched George Mason’s physicality and controlled the game’s action from the outset. Even when the Patriots ramped up the intensity in the second half, which included two yellow cards, the Rams stayed on course. VCU continually won 50/50 chances it has had trouble earning of late and showed a level of toughness not seen this season.

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