Boys Soccer: Radnor defense reaching new heights

There’s one thing that immediately strikes you about the Radnor boys soccer team.

It’s not the conspicuous absence of leading scorer Chris Martin, who had a hand in 18 of the team’s first 25 goals this season and is out for a couple of weeks with a knee ligament strain. That void was lessened by Peter Donato’s two goals Thursday in a 2-0 win over Penncrest.

Instead, the most glaring commodity the Red Raiders possess is their height.

The height advantage of Radnor midfielder Tyler Helms, right, over Penncrest’s Brendon O’Boyle was evident Thursday, but it’s a edge that the Red Raiders need to nurture. (Times Staff / JULIA WILKINSON)

The spine of the Radnor team is comprised of central midfielder Tyler Helms, central defenders Matt Lundstrom and Kevin Riley, and Donato, who floats between the forward line and defense. In all four, they have extremely competent aerial players who bring a physical presence.

“It’s good for winning balls, and if you can win balls in the middle, it gives you an advantage, especially in the final third and keeping it away from the back,” Helms said. “I think it’s a huge weapon, and as long as we stay aggressive and win our headed balls, it’ll definitely be a great weapon.”

The height advantage proved evident Thursday in both of Donato’s goal.

The first came on a long, looping header from near the penalty spot on a free kick that came loose in the box; it was the kind of goal that a shorter player may not score. On Donato’s second goal, he showed off his speed and guile by beating a defender to a loose pass, but he also managed to get his boot high enough, quickly enough to get the ball past Penncrest goalkeeper Peter Coote.

But the most obvious manifestation of Radnor’s edge is in the towering central pairing of Lundstrom and Riley, which effectively curtailed any hope of Penncrest playing long through balls Thursday. It forced the Lions into a possession-based, short-passing game that was difficult to sustain on their home, rutted pitch and took plenty of time settle into.

While the height is an advantage, it’s one that must be carefully nurtured and emphasized.

“It’s an area we need to take advantage of more, and we challenge the boys every game,” Radnor coach Joe Caruolo said. “They show signs of using their height to their advantage sometimes, and other times they don’t. So they need to work on their consistency, and as coaches we challenge them. And when they play how big they are, they are very effective.”

It’s a double-edged sword at times, as Caruolo illustrated Thursday. Penncrest’s Mike Swantek, who for long stretches was man-marked by Riley, doggedly worked to create open spaces in the Red Raiders’ backline, luring Riley out toward the boundary to remove a body from the center of the pitch.

“It becomes a battle of athleticism versus skill, and Penncrest showed some skill on a very rough terrain and became effective when they got it to our feet,” Caruolo said. “And it rattled our guys. But once we settled down and had better organization defensively and trusted our shape against their skill, we settled down.”

Ultimately, Radnor’s skilled spine culminates with goalkeeper Wesley Dickson, one of the area’s best. For him, the development of the defense and its aerial dominance is nothing but a positive.

“It’s much better,” Dickson said. “Over the season, they’ve gotten a ton better at reading the balls coming in and being able to move to it and jump over the defender and still win it. It helps a ton.”

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