Andrew Bulls' conversion from finisher to set-up man has been nothing short of amazing.
The junior at UMBC was among the nation's most lethal finishers last year, ending with 15 goals. This season, his 13 assists ties him for No. 1 in the nation with High Point University senior Scott Rojo.
So how exactly does the America East Striker of the Year in 2009 become the country's most dangerous assist-maker? Bulls said he owes it all to playing forward.
"Playing [forward] for two years really got me in the mindset of what kind of passes forwards like," Bulls said. "As I moved back into a midfield supporting role, I pretty much knew where forwards wanted the ball, and I wanted to put them in positions that I loved while playing as a forward. I just put it in that place that was most comfortable to me. And it's been working out pretty well."
Bulls and Rojo have 13 assists each this season and are tied for most assists and most assists per match.
"This season I feel like I've played a lot more soccer," said Bulls, a Baltimore, Md., native who has scored four goals this year. "I've been getting into situations where I have to make a killer pass or I have to make a decisive free-kick. I've been more of a contributor to the season, maybe not points-wise, but to the team overall. I've been more of an impact player than I have been in a while."
While Bulls is relishing his new position at UMBC, Rojo has been refining his game as a career midfielder.
"My style of play is when I get the ball I'm looking up, trying to feed [teammates] a thru-ball," said Rojo, a Houston native. "We have really fast forwards, so as soon as I get the ball they break out in space and I try to find them."
Rojo used to player center-attacking mid, but he naturally drifted to the left side and now plays left midfield, which he said suits his game just fine.
"When I'm isolated outside, I'm really good at one-on-ones, so I can usually beat a defender down the line and slide a ball back across the top for an easy finish," he said.
Of course, a good passer cannot become an assist-maker without someone finishing. In both the case of Bulls and Rojo, the teams' high-powered offenses have had no problem finding the net. At UMBC, Levi Houapeu has 12 of the team's 31 goals and is one of nine players who have scored this season. At High Point, brothers Karo and Fejiro Okiomah have combined for 21 of the team's 40 goals.
Bulls and Rojo have been instrumental in their teams' successes this season as conference playoffs near. High Point is 13-3-1 overall, and at 8-0 in the league has wrapped up the Big South regular-season title. UMBC is 10-4-2 overall and 4-1-2 in the America East, placing it second behind Boston University.
Between Bulls and Rojo, they have factored in 33 of the 71 goals scored by their teams combined, although they only have seven goals between them.
Rojo said they are perfectly happy playing the set-up role.
"Three or four of my assists came on one-on-ones with keeper," Rojo said. "I could have finished them, but I saw a player coming through and it was an easier goal [for him], so I played the for-sure goal rather than taking a chance and missing the shot."
Bulls said he didn't mind, either.
"It's not so much as I miss finishing, but I love being more a part of the team because as a forward to tend to get isolated a lot and tend to not get that many touches on the ball," Bulls said. "And I'm a player who loves getting touches on the ball. It's not so much that I miss the scoring aspect because we're winning games. The winning is more important and more fulfilling then scoring goals."
Around the nation
David beats Goliath: In what might be the biggest surprise of the year, Cleveland State upended former-No. 1 Akron 2-1 last week.
Akron entered the contest at 14-0-1. Cleveland State was 7-9.
Cleveland State freshman Jordan Hart netted the decisive goal with seven minutes left in the match. Hart's score capped a wild finish to this battle of Northeast Ohio programs. The match was scoreless until 12 minutes left when Cleveland State's Aslinn Rodas put the Vikings up 1-0. About three minutes later, Akron's Michael Nanchoff converted a penalty kick that was set up after John Gulden was taken down in the box.
The loss ended Akron's stay at No. 1 in the NSCAA poll, as the Zips fell to No. 2 behind undefeated Louisville. Akron had not lost a regular-season match since Sept. 12, 2008, when it fell to New Mexico.
Cleveland State keeper Brad Stuver earned Horizon League Player of the Week honors for his five-save performance in the match.
Recruiting road: It might be three months until National Signing Day for the Class of 2011, but that hasn't stopped a few Class of 2012 recruits from getting a jump on recruiting.
Michael Soderlund, a goalkeeper from Boise, Idaho, and a current high school junior, committed to Indiana this past weekend. Soderlund helped Timberline to the Class 5A state tournament last season. Soderlund plays club soccer for Idaho Rush Nike.
As for the Class of 2011, Xavier picked up a pair of verbals this week, making it the second university to boast an incoming class size of 10 or more. Furman also has 10 players verbally committed for next school year.
For the latest verbal commitment information, visit ESPNRISE.com.
Sheldon Shealer is the soccer editor of ESPNRISE.com, ESPN's high school sports site.