While most teams devote hours of practice to preparing for each game, men’s soccer proved once more that it’s the 90 minutes on the pitch that really count.
Despite playing below their level for long stretches of the game, the Maroons (8–4–2, 1–2–1 UAA) earned a 2–1 victory over visiting Wheaton College (8–6–3) on a rainy Wednesday afternoon at Stagg. Though the Maroons were plagued by inconsistency throughout the match, the hard-fought result could prove crucial come season’s end when Chicago will be competing for a postseason spot.
After a tough weekend in the UAA conference, in which the Maroons lost a 2–1 heartbreaker at 25th-ranked Case (12–2–1, 2–2–0) Sunday on the heels of a hard-fought drawing at Rochester (6–3–3, 1–1–2), the toll that these games took on the players was still evident at the beginning of the match against the Thunder.
A lethargic start to the match saw neither team really threaten the other in the opening minutes, and while the Thunder had elected to rest many of their starters, it was the Maroons who struggled to work themselves into the flow of the game.
Chicago eventually grew into the game, though, and began to connect passes nicely in the midfield. Third-year midfielder Eric Kirkenmeier was as busy as ever, winning seemingly every 50–50 ball that came his way, and getting around the field and distributing to open teammates. Fourth-year midfielder Joe Frontczak was also at the forefront of the action, and the first major chance of the match fell to him after Wheaton goalkeeper Ben Dons parried second-year Eric Floyd’s cross into his path. Frontczak could only lash his shot over the bar, rushing it when he had more time than he realized.
In the Maroons’ only other notable chance of the half, a shot by third-year forward Andrew Hamilton was saved by Dons. Although Hamilton has impressed recently, with three goals since the start of UAA action, the Thunder goalkeeper was equal to the task, and saved low to his left after Hamilton turned and shot from the edge of the area.
When the halftime whistle blew, Chicago held a slight upper hand, but the score was still knotted at 0–0. After the break, however, they came out storming and brought a relentless pressure to the offensive third of the field.
“In general, we just got the ball on the ground and passed it a little bit for those periods of time, and had a little bit more energy, so fortunately for us, we reaped the benefits,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said.
After only a minute, the Maroons’ offensive assault paid off. Frontczak picked the ball up on the right wing, about 15 yards into Wheaton’s half and sent the ball into the area. His cross found Floyd, who turned on the edge of the box and found himself with a sea of open space in front of him. Floyd, one of the most natural finishers on the team, didn’t need to be asked twice, and deftly bent his left-footed shot past Dons into the left corner to put the Maroons up 1–0.
Just as quickly as it had started, however, Chicago’s momentum dissipated after the goal, and it was Wheaton who seemed to get into gear. The next 15 minutes were dominated by the Thunder, who incessantly pressed Chicago’s goal. Just when it looked like the Maroons had weathered the storm, a miscommunication between third-year defender Jon Cartwright and second-year goalkeeper Micah Gruber, playing in place of injured fourth-year Keith Crum, allowed Wheaton’s Joel DeLass to slip in past the defense. DeLass chipped the ball over Gruber and into the back of the net to tie the game 1–1.
DeLass’s strike proved to be the wake-up call that Chicago needed, and it took them only five minutes to take the lead again. Kirkenmeier, who led the Maroons forward all afternoon, picked up a loose ball up at the edge of the box, cut across the edge of the area, and went for goal with his left foot. Dons could only push the ball out as far as the waiting Floyd, who pounced on the ball and slotted it easily into an empty net to grab a deserved second goal.
Although Wheaton threw on more of their starters (who had been rested for a big league game against North Park this weekend), they could not get back into the game, and Chicago saw out the remaining minutes with relatively few problems.
“We were fortunate to win in some ways, because we didn’t put together a fantastic performance, but we don’t complain when we win,” said Wiercinski.
While the victory bolsters Chicago’s already strong regional ranking, the squad will need to keep their concentration going for the full 90 minutes if they are to be successful at the conference level.
“Our schedule is so difficult that we need to be on top of our game, every day, with all of these opponents, so the hope is that we’re going to grow from this confidence building experience and get a little bit sharper,” Wiercinski said. “Throughout the season, when we have been able to put it together, physically, tactically, technically, and psychologically, we’ve played some beautiful soccer.”
Wiercinski will be hoping to see the spirit of joga bonito on Saturday, when the team travels to UW-Whitewater (9–3–1) for another regional, non-conference tilt. It will be a stern test for a young team that has grown into itself as the season has progressed. Last year’s matchup between the squads ended in the Maroons’ favor after an intense match produced a 1–0 score line in overtime.
“Whitewater is very good, very physical, and very aggressive. They’ve scored a lot of goals, they’ve won a lot of games, and we can’t take them lightly just because it’s not a UAA game,” said Wiercinski. “From a coaching perspective, it’s a game to improve our psychological preparation, to hopefully maintain that [level] rather than have ups and downs.”