A Bunch of Zeroes

The Muhlenberg men’s soccer team has more clean sheets* than the local laundromat.

Heading into tonight’s game with Drew, the Mules (7-2-1) have seven shutouts in their first 10 games – the first time they’ve done that since the 1990 team blanked eight of its first 10 opponents.

In the latest NCAA Division III statistical rankings, Muhlenberg was sixth in shutout percentage, ninth in save percentage (.906) and 14th in team goals-against average (0.48).

The Mules, who are ranked 20th by D3soccer.com and 21st by the NSCAA, have shut down some offenses that are used to scoring, too. DeSales ranks 25th in the nation in scoring offense and scored a goal against top-ranked Messiah, but was blanked by Muhlenberg. The latest two shutout victims, New Jersey and Washington, had both been shut out only once this season prior to playing the Mules.

“We don’t get any ink in the paper, so that is really what we have to go by,” said junior center back Kyle Plifka of seeing a zero on the scoreboard at the end of the game. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

Good defense has long been a hallmark of Muhlenberg men’s soccer; the 1988 team set a national record (since broken) with 13 consecutive shutouts. Last year’s “Sweet 16″ squad allowed only 14 goals in 22 games, with 12 shutouts.

But that team lost an All-America goalie and two all-region backs. The Mules’ impressive run of shutouts has come with a cast that is more than half new. Plifka and sophomore left back Ryan Barlotta are the lone returning starters from 2010. Center back Jonathan Schauer (pictured) started eight games last year as a freshman, some at back and some at midfield. Right back Bryan Attanasio is a freshman, and the two goalies, junior Ari Nutovits and sophomore Jas Chojnowski, played a total of five minutes in goal last year.

Senior Conor Choi and sophomore Bucky Aronoff have also filled in on the back line.

“They’re all so talented, it makes it easy,” said Plifka. “Most of those guys were battling for playing time last year, so we weren’t really worried about who we lost.”

So what’s the secret to the success of the Muhlenberg defense?

“Hard work on the back line, that’s about it,” said Plifka.

* Ever wonder about the origin of the phrase “clean sheet”? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: The term first appeared in the 1930s. Sports reporters of the era used separate pieces of paper to record the different statistical details of a game. If one team did not allow a goal, then that team’s “details of goals conceded” page would appear blank, leaving a clean sheet.