Back in high school, Matt Solberg had a decision to make. Did he want to insist on playing as an attackman in college or did he want to make the school itself the priority?
Solberg — a native of East Grand Rapids, Mich. — chose Amherst College. In doing so, he placed his trust in the coaches there to make the most of his talents, as an attackman or otherwise.
Looking back on his recruiting of Solberg, Amherst head coach Jon Thompson said, “I was really open with him. I said, we’re thinking about moving you to the midfield once you get here and I want you to know that up front. We ended up making that switch and, boy, has he become a terrific midfielder.”
Now a sophomore at Amherst, Solberg is a major reason the team is enjoying such a sensational season. With one game left in the regular season, Amherst was 12-2 and was ranked No. 4 nationally at the Division 3 level, with the No. 2 scoring offense in the country at 17.79 goals per game, behind only Wesleyan.
Solberg saw only limited time as a freshman last spring, generating two goals and an assist in 11 games. Over the past year, however, Solberg wowed the Amherst coaches and was elevated to be a first-line midfielder.
“In high school, I played attack,” Solberg said. “I feel much more comfortable out there now that I’ve had one season under my belt playing midfield, and also being able to adjust to the pace and our offensive plays, which is obviously much faster than in high school.”
Through the first 14 games of 2018, Solberg displayed that comfort by logging 34 goals (third highest on the team behind attackmen Evan Wolf and Jon Coffey, with 47 and 43, respectively) and 20 assists.
So what, beyond comfort, is behind the seismic shift forward in Solberg’s offensive production this year? Thompson has several reasons at the ready.
“His explosiveness is a huge factor,” Thompson said. “He’s got a first step that is really hard to stay with. He also shoots the ball so hard. But the place he’s most improved since high school is that he is now truly ambidextrous on the field. We knew he was a really good right-handed player in high school, but he has really developed that left hand, especially between his freshman and sophomore years here.
“He’s as dangerous or more dangerous now with his left hand than he is righty.”
Those skill sets allow Solberg to be truly unpredictable, which creates fits for opposing defenders.
“The way he produces against either a short stick or a long stick creates real matchup problems for other teams,” Thompson said. “He scored five goals in a game recently and three of them were against a long stick. At the college level, the good midfielders can score on shortstick defenders, but the elite midfielders could care less if they are being covered by a long pole or a short stick. He’s given us that dynamic where if a team puts a long stick on him, he doesn’t go away. In fact, he may be better against a long stick.
“Our second and third middies on that front line can come alive because they’re covered by short sticks so often and we’re getting production from the guy who’s getting covered by the long pole. That’s pretty unique at this level.”
Rather than focus on his own successes, Solberg hands out credit across the roster.
“I just think for our season so far, our offense is really clicking right now,” Solberg said. “We have threats all over the field, like Evan Wolf and Colin Minicus (Darien, Conn.), who are always a threat to score when they have the ball. Jon Coffey creates and always finds a way to get open. Our coaches are able to put players in certain spots so they can excel at their position. They’re incorporating everyone to make it a true team effort.”
Thompson, however, is happy to keep the spotlight on Solberg.
“Matt played a little bit for us last year,” he said. “Looking back on it, I sometimes wonder if we should have played him a bit more. But his maturation has been remarkable. How much better he is and how much his confidence has grown has been something to see.
“When you have a player with a ton of ability combined with his high creativity combined with this new level of confidence, that to me is fun to watch.”
With wins in eight of nine NESCAC games — the lone loss was to Wesleyan, 12-11 — the Mammoths are positioned to grab a high seed in the conference tournament. They own a win over league power Tufts (20-16) and their only other loss was to then-No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology (21-16).
Regarding Solberg’s potential for even further improvement, Thompson leaves that open for limitless speculation.
“I’m not sure I see a ceiling,” Thompson said. “There’s so much he does that has nothing to do with what we’re doing as coaches. He’s in the conversation as one of our best players right now and we’re a pretty darned good team so on a national level, he’s one of the best out there. We love his game.”