Penn State men’s soccer struggled to find the back of the net last season, and the prospect of the Nittany Lion attack improving isn’t necessarily any clearer heading into coach Jeff Cook’s second season at the helm.
Penn State finished the season with a 6-9-2 overall record and managed to earn points in five of the eight (3-3-2) games it played in a competitive Big Ten — all while scoring only 1.06 goals per game.
“Preseason has been very enjoyable,” coach Jeff Cook said. “We have over half of the team new, with only 12 of the 25 current team members are with us from the 2018 season. We built a good foundation last year and now we look forward to 2019 with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
With a new season on the horizon and six preseason top-25 opponents on the 2019 schedule, the Nittany Lions have to remedy their deficiencies in the final third without last season’s two brightest attackers.
Jeremy Rafanello and Ethan Beckford departed the university during the summer to pursue professional careers, leaving behind a question mark at the forward positions heading into the season.
Rafanello finished with a team high seven points last season, contributing three goals and one assist in his 15 starts on the season, while Beckford scored two of his own in 15 starts, as well.
While a combined five goals and one assist don’t pop off the box score, the two created havoc for opposing backlines and goalkeepers and created more opportunities for their teammates to join the attack. With the absence of Rafanello in front of goal and Beckford attacking the wings, the Nittany Lions have big cleats to fill.
“I feel we have been really threatening this preseason in terms of getting in dangerous positions,” Cook said. “When we go forward, we have a great mentality to get numbers into the opposition’s penalty area. I believe that the team, collectively, can be a threat.”
The Nittany Lions enter the season with four players listed as forwards on the roster, with only two of them logging minutes in their collegiate careers.
The returning senior duo of Christian Sload and Kyle Perno on paper would be the most likely get the nod as Rafanello’s and Beckford’s replacements.
Sload’s 2018 season consisted of 16 appearances and four starts for Penn State with a goal and two assists. If Cook chooses the route of experience to fill the void, the 6-foot-3-inch forward would slide into Rafanello’s spot.
Perno missed most of the 2018 campaign due to injury but started 11 games in his sophomore year before Cook’s arrival. Perno has appeared in 25 games over two seasons, but his only contribution logged is an assist in the 2017 season.
For new faces, freshman Liam Butts and sophomore Josh Dabora also look to bolster the thin positions in attack.
Butts is a true freshman who played three seasons for the Atlanta United F.C. Academy team from 2016-19, during which he primarily played in the midfield. Butts scored three goals in six starts (11 appearances) for Atlanta United’s U-18/19 team during the 2018-19 season. However, Butts is listed as a forward for the Nittany Lions and may inject a boost in the offense.
Dabora, a former three-star recruit according to Top Drawer Soccer, utilized a redshirt in his freshman season. The 6-foot-3 forward may be used in similar fashion to Sload as a target man.
Despite the question marks in the attack, Cook expressed the chemistry and bonds the team has made in the short amount of time he’s held the reigns of the program which could ultimately offset some of the inexperience.
“We focused a ton on what our team is going to be like, in terms of our values and team culture,” Cook said. “Relationships mean everything. We spent a lot of time last spring semester working towards that chemistry. What we’ve tried to do is bring reality to that.”