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Robert Morris soccer teams face uphill climb entering the Horizon League

Better late than never.

With the postponement of its Fall 2020 soccer season pushed back to the Spring, Robert Morris men and women’s soccer teams are finally jumping into competition, as they begin play in the Horizon League this week.

The school announced its move into the Horizon League in most sports in June.  The move to the Midwestern-based league ended RMU’s long-standing run in the Northeast Conference.

RMU is the 12th school in the Indianapolis-based Horizon League, joining Cleveland State, Wright State and Youngstown State in Ohio, Detroit Mercy and Oakland in Michigan, Northern Kentucky, IUPUI and Fort Wayne in Indiana, Green Bay and Milwaukee in Wisconsin and Illinois-Chicago (UIC).

The shift will save the Colonials slightly on travel expense, with their average distance to a conference opponent shrinking from 408 miles in the NEC to 334 miles in the Horizon League.

Youngstown State will be the closest opponent to RMU at about 60 miles from Moon Township.

Of the 12 schools, only Youngstown State doesn’t feature a men’s soccer program, leaving 11 schools competing on the men’s side.

YSU does have a women’s program — with plenty of Western PA ties — as we ran this feature in Fall 2019.

Shrum building Youngstown State with fresh Western Pa. roots

At first look, RMU’s soccer teams will have their work cut out for them as they enter the new league.  While the Horizon League is not to be confused with some of the top DIvision I soccer conferences in the country, the conference has fielded teams that have been nationally ranked and won NCAA tournament games in recent years.

“It’s talented, treacherous, there’s a lot of good teams,” RMU’s new men’s coach, Jason O’Keefe said this week as his team prepares for its opener at Oakland.

On the men’s side, a third-place regular season finisher in 2019, Wright State, won the conference’s tournament, then upset ACC’s Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament.

Heading into the 2021 Spring season, here’s the men’s coaches poll…

Spring 2021 #HLMSOC Preseason Poll
Pl.  Team – Pts. (First-place votes)

T1.  UIC (Univ. Illinois (Chicago)– 109 (8)
T1.  Oakland – 109 (3)
3.   Wright State – 88
4.   Milwaukee – 79
5.   Cleveland State – 72
6.   Detroit Mercy – 71
7.   Green Bay – 68
8.   Northern Kentucky – 48
9.   IUPUI – 38
10.  Purdue Fort Wayne – 27
11.  RMU – 17

Indeed, the Colonials have work to do to build its program back up from being a NEC mainstay to become a competitive entity in the Horizon League.

“We’ll get a taste of it right away,” O’Keefe said referring to his team’s opener against Oakland this week.

“There are programs that have won NCAA tournament games and have played top competition. That’s what we want to be in. We want to be in a conference that is highly competitive.”

O’Keefe, who was previously with Appalachian State prior to the program being discontinued in the Summer, was hired this Fall, after the announcement of the retirement of long-time coach Bill Denniston.

As a program in 2018, Appalachian State owned the best defense in the Sun Belt, allowing just 15 goals during the season. The Mountaineers posted a goals against average of .844, which topped the Sun Belt and ranked 29th in the country.

“Jason will maximize the potential of our men’s soccer program in short order, as he has demonstrated the ability to develop student-athletes to perform at the highest level, both athletically and academically,” Robert Morris’ Athletic Director Chris King boasted after the hire.

“RMU wants to compete for Horizon League championships, and with Jason’s extensive recruiting contacts and prior competitive excellence, we are confident that he can take this program to the next level.”

O’Keefe was introduced as Head Coach right before Thanksgiving.

This meant he had less than two months to get acquainted with the players on the roster and prepare his team prior to the start of the 10-game Horizon League schedule which begins Friday, February 5 at Oakland.

“There were a lot of virtual, Zoom meetings.  Things have been constantly changing,” O’Keefe told Pittsburgh Soccer Now on Tuesday. “We finally got together by January 10 but had to wait for everyone to test negative (from COVID-19 tests).”

‘The kids have bought in,” O’Keefe added. “It’s about hard work. We’re putting in the time every day. We’re implementing things. We have high standards. We’re preparing. We want to slowly raise the bar here.”

We have more on the team’s schedule and its roster in this feature posted last week.

New Horizons: Robert Morris men’s soccer to embark on spring schedule with new coach and in a new conference

On the women’s side, the Colonials kick off the season first, on Wednesday, against defending league champions Milwaukee.

RMU women will also start the new campaign with a new coach in Chris Shaw, as well as a new system of play to go along with the new league.

“The team is excited about playing their first competitive matches in over a year,” Shaw said. “And personally, I can’t wait to coach my first game for RMU.  The team has been working hard for the past year on the practice field and everyone is excited to finally get to showcase that hard work on the game field.”

While the program was competitive and always in the mix for the NEC Tournament, Shaw will look to take the Colonials to new heights in his first season behind the helm.

Since a 2015 campaign that saw RMU finish second overall in the regular season standings and make a run to the NEC Tournament Final, the Colonials have been hovering around the .500 mark in conference play the last five years and have not returned to a conference tournament since.  For a program that has never won a conference tournament, the Horizon league offers a fresh start and a new challenge for Coach Shaw and his new staff as they boast a roster that includes six returning seniors.

For more on the Spring 2021 schedule and RMU women’s soccer’s roster, we posted this last week.

Spring comes early for Robert Morris women’s soccer as 2021 season kicks off Feb 3

Milwaukee has been the dominant program in Horizon League women’s soccer historically, owning 13 conference titles in 27 years. They have won the last two league championships as well, and in 2019 wrapped up an impressive season by finishing first overall in the league standings before taking down Oakland and UIC en-route to another tournament championship.  Milwaukee has advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament several times, including back-to-back trips during the 2005 and 2006 seasons.  They reached the tournament again on 2019, falling to Wisconsin 1-0 in the opening round of play.

So, it makes sense that they’ll be the odds on favorites heading into the 2021 Spring season.

Spring 2021 #HLWSOC Preseason Poll
Pl.   Team – Pts. (First-place votes)

  1. Milwaukee – 132 (10)
  2. IUPUI – 118
  3. UIC – 112 (1)
  4. Northern Kentucky – 108
  5. Oakland – 105 (1)
  6. Wright State – 91
  7. Cleveland State – 79
  8. Youngstown State – 51
  9. Purdue Fort Wayne – 38
  10. Green Bay – 37
  11. RMU – 35
  12. Detroit Mercy – 30

As previously mentioned, one of the fun things about the move for RMU to the Horizon League will be the potential of developing a geographic rival as
Youngstown State will be Robert Morris’ closest conference foe, with just 58 miles separating Youngstown and Moon Township.

The Penguins and Colonials have squared off 21 times in their history, with RMU owning an 13-8-1 overall record in the series.  The Colonials were victorious in their last meeting against YSU, earning a 2-0 win in Youngstown back in September of 2018. The farthest member in the Horizon League for RMU is Green Bay, which is 657 miles away from the North Athletic Complex.

Amongst their new Horizon League foes, the Colonials have never faced Detroit Mercy, UIC, Indianapolis, Oakland, or Green Bay before, though they did face off against the Titans in pre-season play a year ago.  All-time, RMU is 0-2-1 against Purdue Fort Wayne, battling them to a 1-1 draw a year ago at Joe Walton Stadium.  They are 2-2 against Northern Kentucky, 0-2 against Wright State, 13-8-1 against Youngstown State, 2-4 against Cleveland State, and 0-2 against Milwaukee.  2020 will see RMU continue with a number of rivalries that have gone dormant in recent years, including their first matchup against Cleveland State since 2013 as well as their first meeting against Wright State since way back in the 1996 season.

“The past year has presented numerous challenges,” Shaw said.

“But the team is ready to move forward with this new chapter for RMU women’s soccer.”


John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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