Men’s soccer feels Thunder’s wrath

By Jordan Holliday

There are some nights when the deck is stacked against you and no amount of effort will get you a win. Men’s soccer found out this truth the hard way Wednesday night.

Playing in the rain in Chicago’s western suburbs, the Maroons (6–7–1, 1–2–1) were overwhelmed by Wheaton’s (10–2–1) surefooted attack. Despite a strong performance, the Maroons gave up three goals in the second half as the Thunder rolled to their seventh consecutive victory by a final tally of 4–0.

While the South Siders managed to keep the game competitive throughout the first half and pushed forward to pressure Wheaton’s defense on numerous occasions, they only generated two shots in the half.

By contrast, Wheaton got off 14 shots in the opening period, but third-year netminder Micah Gruber put on an impressive display at goal, recording five saves to help keep the game close. Gruber, playing in place of injured first-year keeper Steve Baron, did not let a shot past until fourth-year forward Strider Elass buried a penalty kick in the 23rd minute. Gruber started the first three games of the season before first-year Baron took over the number-one spot.

Elass’s penalty kick came after second-year defender John Hughes was called for a push inside the 18-yard box. From the sideline it was not clear that the foul occurred in the penalty box, and head coach Scott Wiercinski drew a yellow card for contesting the call.

“I thought it was a cheap penalty. It was a pretty physical game overall,” Wiercinski said. “I didn’t think that case was worthy of a goal.”

The pressure stayed on Chicago throughout the game, as the Thunder maintained an offensive formation throughout and made use of throughballs and switch passes to push their possession upfield.

Throughout the first 45 minutes, the Maroons’ defense stayed strong, repeatedly rebuffing the fleet Wheaton attack. Despite the South Siders’ offensive struggles, their tough-nosed defensive play and Gruber’s work in goal ensured that the home team would only have a 1–0 halftime advantage.

After the break, though, the Maroons struggled to keep up with the Thunder as the home team spread the field and used speedy counterattacks to extend their lead.

Following a foul call in the 64th minute, Wheaton took its free kick before Chicago’s defense could get set and got the ball to their second leading scorer, second-year midfielder Matt Swartz. The unprepared Maroons could not cover Swartz, who carried the ball 15 yards and chipped it past Gruber, putting the Thunder up 2–0.

“It was definitely our fault, a lack of concentration,” Wiercinski said of the goal.

Although they trailed by two, the Maroons, spurred on by the aggressive play of first-year wingers Alex Clifford and Ryan Fitzgerald, continued to press hard on Wheaton’s back five. Every time Chicago’s offense created a promising situation, the Thunder held steady, and the Maroons seemed just one pass or a single touch shy of getting a decent chance at goal.

While the squad struggled to convert offensively, its hosts managed to capitalize on two opportunities late in the game and doubled the score to a discouraging 4–0.

The first chance to cushion the lead came in the 81st minute, when Elass pushed the ball upfield before spotting teammate Swartz cutting through an opening in the Maroon defense. Swartz received Elass’s pass inside the 18, ripped a low shot near the post, and found the back of the net.

Nine minutes later, Elass again got possession of the ball and sped down the sideline, this time finding third-year forward Joel DeLass in an open position near the Maroons’ goal. Elass’s pass hit DeLass, who fired a shot that went off Gruber’s fingertips and gave Wheaton a 4–0 lead to cap off the game’s scoring.

The final two goals of the game likely had more to do with Chicago’s offense trying to get on the board than with mistakes from the defense.

“At that point, we’re pushing forward, down 2–0, pushing up for a goal,” Wiercinski said. “We’re very exposed in the midfield and defense, and they’re very good on the counterattack.”

Going into the game, Wiercinski and his team knew that Wheaton was among the elite class of D-III men’s soccer. The team was the national runner-up last year and in 1999, and won national championships in 1997 and 1984.

Wheaton came to prominence in soccer under head coach Joe Bean, for whom its soccer stadium is named. Bean coached there for 38 years before retiring last December with a career record of 606–185–61, a tally which makes him the winningest coach in the history of NCAA men’s soccer.

Going into the showdown with such a D-III powerhouse, Wiercinski and the Maroons knew that they would be tested to their limits.

“The situation would’ve made it easy to quit, and our guys didn’t do that,” Wiercinski said. “We made some small adjustments to minimize some of their strengths and accentuate our strengths. What’s disappointing is that we did that pretty well for 70 minutes.”

The loss is the Maroons’ second in a row; on Sunday, they fell 3–2 to 23rd-ranked NYU (10–3–1).

Chicago has nine days off before resuming UAA play with a game against 20th-ranked Case Western (10–3) next Friday. The showdown with the Spartans could be a tossup, with Case starting strong and winning their first eight games before cooling off lately and dropping three of their last five games.