by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team is heading into a new division this year, moving up from the Liberty to the tougher American.

With teams like Seton Hall, Livingston, West Orange and crosstown rival Montclair High on the schedule, head coach Rob Leather knows it’s going to be a challenging season but he’s anxious for his team to test their mettle in it.

When Leather first took over the program in 2014, the Cougars were actually in the American Division, but didn’t have the skill players to compete. They were relegated to the Liberty Division, where they compiled a 4-2-1 record, with an overall record of 12-7-2.

That resulted in the team’s being bumped back up into the American Division, but this time, Leather says, they’re ready.

“I think it’s a good time for us,” he said during a recent practice. “We’re pretty excited about challenging ourselves against the big boys in the county but realistic to the fact that it’s a tough schedule. Our goal in terms of wins and losses is still to perform well in the state tournament, the prep tournament where we obviously go more against schools our size.”

Leather feels it’s a good thing for MKA to be in a difficult division like the American as it will give him a clear idea of exactly how effective his team is.

“There’s only eight teams now in that American division,” Leather said. “I want to be there every year. We have a solid unit and it’ll be nice to see how we stack up this year. I think we have enough to compete. I want to give the biggest schools a good game, win lose or draw.”

This time around, Leather not only has the skill players to compete, but the bench depth to really give the team some versatility. The program also is big enough this season for the school to field a freshman team, which will allow Leather to give younger players much-needed experience they wouldn’t get on the bench at the varsity level.

Meanwhile, having a larger number of kids at the varsity level has other pluses.

“Last year we had a good season, but we played with 14 kids for the whole season, give or take a few games,” Leather explained. “Whereas this year we’re going to have a squad of about 20 on the varsity team and any of those [kids] at any time can play. Obviously, having that better competition breeds a better training environment. The kids know that none of them are really guaranteed, no matter who they are or what they’ve done in the past. They’re always playing for minutes on the field or starting position or for a role on the team. Whatever it may be. So as a coach, that’s huge because obviously you don’t want the kids being complacent in terms of where they fit.”

The constant competition has been a big help in terms of replacing players who graduated last season.

For example, John Baney was the goalkeeper last season, as well as a captain. Now that he’s gone, he has been replaced by sophomore Andrew Garofolo.

“He plays at a good club level, good goalkeeper, so I’m happy about that,” Leather says of his new keeper. However, the coach isn’t just going to leave his netminder alone out on a limb. He’s going to provide Garofolo with a stout defensive line in front of him.

“We need to build a strong defensive unit with the conference we’re in,” he said. “We return three starters from the back four we had last year — Jason Gertz, Nico Espinosa-Dice and John Park. I’m hoping that Ahmed Abukwaik will more than fill the role that [Baney] left. He’s an excellent soccer player, and he’s evolved at the club level into a pretty commanding center back.”

Leather feels that putting a good defense in front of Garofolo will help the young goalie settle in and be more confident, because he knows the players in front of him will be able to protect him.

“It’s huge, and that really is why I think Ahmed will be key back there,” Leather said. “Ahmed reads the game very well, so he’ll be able to organize the back line and help Andrew with that. Espinosa-Dice, who is a four-year starter for us, is a captain as well. He has a lot of experience. I think having two seniors and two captains in front of [Garofolo] is going to be huge. They’ll help him get through any nerves or apprehension he might have. He’s good enough, but I think the two seniors in front of him are going to be big, for him and for us.”

A good defense is only half the battle, though, so Leather is looking to some key players on the offense as well and one in particular.

“Our forward, Dylan Ladda, had a great season for us last year. He’ll be a junior this season and I’m looking for him to step up in the top conference and show he’s one of the best forwards in the county, which I think he has the potential to be. He’s going to be big for us. He had a great season for us last year, so I hope he just picks it up where he left off.”

More than anything else on the offense, though, Leather needs his players to finish strong.

“I think, obviously you don’t get as many opportunities to break teams down. So when we’re attacking in the final third and we’ve created that opportunity to be creative, we need to execute,” Leather said. “So, our finishing needs to be good. Final ball needs to be good, needs to be really clean in the final third.”

If the defense can play as well as he expects it to and his offense can finish their attacks effectively, Leather knows his guys can give the other teams in their division a run for their money.