With 58 seconds left in double overtime of the seventh game of the season, the University of Rhode Island men’s soccer team finally gave up a goal. Six-hundred forty-nine minutes and two seconds had passed without one. Brown scored the breakthrough tally in extra time Saturday night, dealing URI its first defeat.
It was a remarkable streak – the six consecutive shutouts rank as a program record – and the end of it did little to change URI’s status. No team in the nation has allowed fewer goals.
“Our goalkeeper and our back four defenders are doing a great job, but it’s really the whole team,” head coach Gareth Elliott said. “They’re a hardworking group. They’re willing to play hard for each other. They stay organized, stay compact. Tactically, they’re following instructions and playing within their role.”
URI carries a 6-1 record into the start of Atlantic 10 conference play this weekend, poised to continue what’s already been a special season. URI was among the last teams in the country to lose a game.
“We are on a wave and we just want to keep running like this – try to use this positive energy for the next games,” goalkeeper Stefan Schmidt said.
Since playing for the A-10 title in 2014, the Rams have been up and down. They went 10-8-2 in 2015 and 8-11-1 the next year. Last season, with a young core to build around, they logged a 10-6-3 mark and offered hints of what was to come.
“We were certainly expecting a good start with the talent we have on the team, but 6-0, you don’t think that far when you go into the season,” said senior captain Dominik Richter.
The Rams have been successful at both ends of the field. They rank in the top 30 nationally in total goals scored. Their defensive numbers simply overshadow that mark.
Elliott anticipated having a strong back line. Senior Tyler Dickson and juniors Peder Kristiansen and Niklas Middrup were set to return after holding starting jobs last year, with Dickson opting to come back for a fifth year in the program as a graduate student. Top recruit Sondre Karterud would join them. And there’s depth behind them, which has been called on amid some injuries.
There was a question mark in net after the graduation of four-year starter Nils Leifhelm, but the coaching staff was pretty sure it had the answers among the returning goalies and newcomers Roger Penske and Schmidt.
“We have some goalkeepers who we really like back there and we returned three of our starting back four,” Elliott said. “I think anytime you return three of the starting back four, you’re looking to be strong defensively. The right back who’s playing now is an experienced player, maybe not in college soccer, but just in general. We did expect to be strong defensively. Six shutouts in six games, I’m not sure if we expected that.”
A 2-0 win over Boston University in the season opener started the streak. The Rams followed with a 4-0 victory over Bryant, then edged Penn State 1-0 in the streak’s closest call. The Nittany Lions missed a penalty kick.
“A little bit of luck here or there definitely helps in some shutouts,” Elliott said. “Obviously, Penn State missed a penalty against us and there were definitely some other chances teams have had. But I think when you’re doing the right things, you may get a little more luck than usual anyway.”
With staffers digging into the record books, the streak hit four in a win over Holy Cross Sept. 5.
“We’ve kind of been talking about it the whole season – just saying we didn’t want to give up a goal,” Dickson said. “As we got three and four games into it, we wanted to know when the last time it had happened and things like that.”
The program record previously held by the 1995 team was broken Sept. 8 in a 2-0 win over Marist. After a long gap between games, the Rams carried the streak into a rivalry tilt with Providence last week and kept it intact in a 3-0 win. By that time, the Rams were nationally ranked, and the streak was making headlines.
“You get on that winning streak and the shutout streak, and it’s something you want to keep going,” Elliott said. “Momentum is a great thing in sports, so you want to keep it rolling.”
Penske owns four of the shutouts, with Schmidt notching one. They teamed up in the win over Providence, with Penske taking over after Schmidt left with an injury.
“Both different goalkeepers,” Elliott said. “Roger is a little bit bigger, very calm and relaxed and maybe too calm for a goalkeeper at times. Stefan is a little on the wilder side like a more traditional goalkeeper. He’s a little bit smaller and maybe a bit more aggressive off his line. But two great goalkeepers and what we’ve told them is we don’t think we have a number one and a number two. I think we have two number ones.”
Penske is the grandson and namesake of the legendary auto-racing owner. He grew up in Michigan and California and opted for a move across the country to begin his collegiate soccer career.
“I just wanted to come to someplace different, give myself a challenge, something that I wasn’t used to so far in my life,” Penske said. “Coming here, the coaches are great and I knew some of the boys already. They’ve made it feel like home.”
Schmidt also made a long-distance trip from his native Germany. After attending college while playing high-level club soccer, he decided to combine the two in the United States.
“It’s a very good soccer program and I can combine education and soccer on a really high level,” Schmidt said. “And it’s a new experience to grow as a person.”
Penske and Schmidt may continue sharing time, with the Rams benefiting from the competition between them.
“It’s a really good situation for us,” Richter said. “For them, it’s great competition. We have four great goalies, but especially the two who have played so far, it doesn’t really matter who you throw in right now. We’re equally confident in both of them. They’re both getting shutouts, they both seem so confident on the ball and in the goal, and we’re confident in both of them.”
In turn, the goalies have no doubts about the players in front of them, even the ones who spend most of their time 80 yards away. Six shutouts in a row don’t happen with just four defenders and a good goalie.
“We definitely take pride in getting shutouts, but it’s a team effort every game,” Dickson said. “It starts up at the top. The best way to defend is as a team. It’s not just the defenders. It starts with the forwards and the midfield. If they’re all doing their jobs, then our job is pretty easy.”
The next task is A-10 play. Streak or not, the Rams will take the same approach.
“One thing that we did last year is we got hashtag team put on the back of our T-shirts. I think it’s important in this generation of players coming through, that we have people on the team that put team first,” Elliott said. “The success doesn’t always come with just talent. It just doesn’t come with individuals. You’ve got 11 guys on the field working together and if we have injuries, it’s next man up. I think the leadership has really been critical this year. Dom and Tyler as captains have really set the bar on what the expectations are, what we’re trying to do and accomplish. And I think the underclassmen have followed them.”