By Logan VanDine
THROUGH nine games, Rider men’s soccer already has more wins than it did all of last year, and is on pace for Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship contention in 2023.
One of the players responsible for the turnaround is graduate student forward Zaki Alibou, a former MAAC offensive player of the year who is back to full health after playing just two games in 2022.
Originally from soccer-centric Meknes, Morocco, Alibou started playing the game at a very young age.
“Soccer is the main sport in Morocco, everybody was trying to play it and try to get professional,” said Alibou, who joined his first soccer club at just 10 years old.“I would start playing with my friends.”
Thanks to the support of his dad and other family members, Alibou instantly fell in love with the game.
“My dad got me interested,” he said. “All of my family loves to watch soccer. They’re Barcelona fans, and my dad would always love to go to the coffee shop to watch the games and stuff, and my older brother was a really good player. … I fell in love with the sport.”
When it came to picking where Alibou wanted to play at the collegiate level in the U.S., despite coming from a place where college was not a thing, he explained how he got offers from multiple universities, including Rider, and eventually decided to play for the Broncs.
“I started talking to the former assistant coach, Coach [Victor] Kotynski … and I felt so comfortable talking to him and I had a lot of belief in the program,” Alibou said. “He helped me a lot with the process and everything and he was trying his best to get me in and …I said yes to their offer.”
Alibou said that the COVID-19-shortened season in 2021 does not count for him, so he described what it was like to play in a college game for the very first time, despite him playing in 2021.
“My first game was against Villanova and we lost 2-0 … but I played really well in that game and I had the opportunity to go and see the university and it got me excited because you go to play your first game at a big school and all the facilities and buildings were really nice,” he said.
During his first full season in 2021, Alibou put the MAAC on notice as he led Rider in goals and points, becoming the Broncs’ first-ever MAAC offensive player of the year.
In 2021, Alibou was also a first team All-MAAC and MAAC all-academic honoree.
“I set my goals really high because my main goals are to [go] professional and coach the MLS …I know in order to achieve those goals, I need to play a really good season,” he said.
Head Coach Chad Duernberger, who’s in his first season coaching for the Broncs, had nothing but praise for his star forward.
“I’m very thankful to coach a player like Zaki,” Duernberger said. “He has so many qualities to go at defenders in different ways. He can handle the physical battles but he also has the ability to dribble at pace and go by you one-versus-one.”
While Alibou was a player to be reckoned with for the Broncs during his first season on the men’s team, a groin injury cost him the majority of his 2022 season as he played in just two games against Seton Hall and Rutgers.
Now, Alibou is healthy and back on the field with his teammates.
“The first game was a little painful, I had some pain at the start and the first four or five games. I had a lot of ups and downs, which is going to happen, but the last few games I’ve felt pretty good,” said Alibou. “I think the last game we played against Fairfield, that was the extreme Zaki, like I felt myself back.”
As a graduate student with an international business major and a minor in sports management, Alibou spoke about what his future holds after he leaves Rider. “Soccer first. I would love to do that first,” Alibou said. “If not, something hopefully related to sports, or running a business for people, or being a manager for a sports team. I think I have the skillset for that.”
At 5-1-2 on the season and in second place in the MAAC, the Broncs are looking to capture their first MAAC Championship since the 2018 Season.