To say the least, the Robert Morris men’s soccer team is an unproven side entering its 38th season in NCAA Division I. But it is, succinctly speaking, an ambitious one, to quote the man at its helm.
Head coach Jason O’Keefe is banking on his forward-looking group of upperclassmen, as well as a robust and diverse group of newcomers, to reverse the fortune of a program seeking its first winning campaign since 2015.
Last spring, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed and abbreviated O’Keefe’s first tour of duty as successor to Bill Denniston, the Colonials struggled to a 1-6-1 finish in their inaugural season as part of the Horizon League. RMU returns 15 players from a squad that learned hard lessons about how to find success at the D-I level: something the program had mastered in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“To win games these days is extremely hard because of the parity out there. College soccer is an unforgiving landscape, and all it takes is a couple missteps to drop a game,” said O’Keefe. “We’re not there now, but I think we’re all embracing where we’re at. We’re humble, but also hungry to get more.”
Of those 15 returnees, eight saw action in every match. Only three full-time members of the starting XI are back for the fall campaign, which proved a blessing in disguise when O’Keefe was trying to expand RMU’s recruiting base under historically trying circumstances.
“Perhaps the gift, and the curse, for us is that a lot of other teams were returning their senior group and didn’t have a lot of spots [to offer], whereas we took over a program that had a bunch of opportunities [for new players],” he said.
Despite not being able to drive or fly at will to watch prospective talent, he remained confident in the relationships he has cultivated, formerly as head coach at Appalachian State, and more recently with local amateur clubs like Pittsburgh Hotspurs and the Riverhounds Development Academy. To wit, he is betting that those connections will pay rich dividends for the Colonials.
“Recruiting is about developing a network over a number of years, domestically and abroad. The last year presented a whole lot of challenges I’ve never seen before, and some unique ways of really having to rely on that network,” said O’Keefe. “Recruiting is a bit of a gamble anyway, and now everyone had to take that same gamble.”
The immediate payoff took the form of a 13-player freshman class that actually represents more unique countries (seven) than U.S. states (five). Among the new Colonials are natives of England, France, Germany, Israel, Norway and Canada, as well as domestic debutants from as near as the WPIAL (Highlands, Connellsville, Deer Lakes) to as far as Honolulu.
“It’s not like we can just show them a Horizon League trophy, or point to a lot of games that we’ve won. They came here having to buy into the vision and the philosophy, and where they fit in,” O’Keefe said. “When you cut them open, they all look the same. They’re ambitious, they’re hungry, they’re rock-star student-athletes, and they want us to get back to our winning ways.”
Now that O’Keefe has had a proper preseason with which to introduce them to the culture he’s trying to build, those newcomers will officially represent RMU for the first time Thursday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. EDT, when Robert Morris kicks off the regular season against West Virginia at the North Athletic Complex on ESPN+.
“It’s really been fun and exciting,” said O’Keefe. “It’s a whole new, core group of guys who really bought in, embraced our vision and have gotten on board since the spring, then returners who have helped cultivate communication and getting those guys acclimated.”
That process began on the first day of preseason camp, when each player received a manual outlining the team’s goals for the remainder of 2021, covering everything from soccer and academics to community service.
Some goals are more specific than others, like achieving a 3.2 team GPA, or like posting seven clean sheets. First and foremost, however, is a more consistent return to the win column.
“We’ve got some ambitious goals, and I think the biggest one is to have a winning season,” O’Keefe said. “Within that, we have other goals, like trying to be more mentally strong, not giving up back-to-back goals or taking back-to-back losses, that sort of thing. Within each game, we have seven or eight different categories of goals we’re focusing on, like scoring first and being even or ahead at halftime. Those things usually equate to wins.”
To get his team into better habits, O’Keefe has pursued an iron-sharpens-iron approach to scheduling that began with an exhibition match at No. 3 Pitt Aug. 14.
“Whether it was colleagues or friends, some were asking me to get my head examined when they saw our schedule,” O’Keefe said with a laugh. “Guys got to see what execution looks like. There’s an understanding that it doesn’t just happen with good players, nor does it happen overnight. There’s a lot of work put in before that. We got exactly what we wanted out of that game.”
Robert Morris followed that preseason defeat with a 2-1 victory at Niagara Aug. 20, fueled by a second-half equalizer from freshman forward and Holon, Israel native Ben Dayan that came off a throw-in and an 88th-minute winner from fellow rookie Colton Spence, who joins the RMU back line off an unprecedented WPIAL championship run with Deer Lakes, off a corner kick.
“Defensively, we got exposed, and we got some things to look at [on film] going into the next week. Guys showed up [at Niagara] really focused and determined, with the right intensity,” said O’Keefe. “We got a lot of things righted defensively. We were pleased that, number one, the guys got rewarded for their hard work and saw that, if we do the right things, good things are going to happen, and also, that we were more sound defensively.”
If anything, O’Keefe wants the trip across town to face the national semifinalist Panthers to signal the beginning of a more regionalized era in scheduling for RMU. The Colonials, following Thursday’s curtain-raiser versus the Mountaineers, head downtown to take on Duquesne Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. EDT (also on ESPN+), followed by a trip to Akron Friday, September 3 before the Horizon League opener at Northern Kentucky the night of Saturday, Sept. 11.
Additionally, they will interrupt conference play for a visit from Xavier Sept. 15 and a trip to Loretto to take on former NEC rival Saint Francis University Sept. 22.
“It’s a whole new vibe. There’s a lot of really good teams in this region, so we’re excited that we can get in these type of games without having to get on a plane or go on an eight-hour bus ride,” said O’Keefe. “We’re going to try to establish these relationships, do home-and-aways and try to keep that regional competitiveness. Hopefully, those games become more meaningful as we grow.”
As for how the Colonials will line up for those matches, Spence is making a case for his share of minutes defensively after three all-section and all-district seasons at DL, where he thrived under new Robert Morris assistant coach Dan Yates. Dayan could become a valuable addition to the attack after a seven-year career in the Israeli second division, most recently playing for Maccabi Herzliya F.C. That attack will also feature sophomore midfielder Miller Masson, whose goal versus Purdue Fort Wayne Mar. 6 earned the first Horizon League win in program history.
Looking elsewhere in the midfield, London-born Bryan Akongo, who started every spring match as a freshman, enjoyed a productive off-season with Pittsburgh Hotspurs and could take significant steps forward as a sophomore. Junior Ethan Romito, who made five starts last season, will also be counted on for support in the middle.
Meanwhile, O’Keefe has tabbed Swedish senior Gustaf Moberg, who played the second-most minutes (728) for RMU in the spring, along with junior Ramsey Damon to stabilize his back line. He is also looking to guys like Damon and Moberg to take some pressure off junior keeper Mike Zolnierczyk, ditto sophomore defender Kelvin Ramirez, who was voted team MVP for the truncated season after leading the team in minutes (736).
Zolnierczyk finished last season with a 1.42 GAA and .786 save percentage punctuated by consecutive clean sheets against Green Bay and Purdue Fort Wayne Feb. 22 and Mar. 6, respectively. After splitting time in net with current senior and former North Allegheny standout Grant Glorioso, he was part of the team’s unofficial leadership group that trained together extensively between seasons.
O’Keefe is very proud of their dedication, but he also knows that extra effort is prerequisite if the team wishes to hold its own in Horizon League play.
“From top to bottom, it’s a competitive league. UIC has kind of been the darling. Last year, there were a couple of newbies [finding success]: Northern Kentucky in the regular season, Milwaukee in the tournament. Oakland has had a ton of success, and they were the preseason No. 1 pick,” he said. “You throw on top of that, Cleveland State and Wright State, and [Purdue Fort Wayne] and IUPUI, with their new coaches, and these non-conference games become important. They need to stretch us, test us and prepare us for that Horizon League schedule.
“We know we’re challenging ourselves. Whether our goals are achieved, I don’t know, but we’re going to work hard every day to get better than we were the day before, then climb the ladder of some of those other goals.”