How is improvement measured? For men’s soccer and head coach Scott Wiercinski, more than halfway through the season and sitting sixth in the UAA standings, their philosophy lies in day-to-day progression.
The Maroons (6–6–1, 1–2–1 UAA) are coming off a weekend of split results that captures the trajectory of the season so far. On Friday, a solid display against Brandeis (6–6–2, 0–3) resulted in a 1–0 victory, but two days later, mental errors cost Chicago in a 3–2 defeat at NYU (9–3–1, 2–2).
“Although the record isn’t what we would like it to look like, I think we’ve really made some good progress in a lot of ways, and really, that is how we evaluate things moving forward: not necessarily in wins and losses, but in terms of playing to our potential and playing better each game,” Wiercinski said.
One of the areas Wiercinski has put under scrutiny these past few weeks has been the defense, which has allowed 11 goals in four games. One of those four results, however, was the blanking handed to the Brandeis Judges—in many ways the unit’s best outing of the season, with first-year goalkeeper Steven Baron recording four saves in his third career shutout.
Against the Judges, first-year winger Alex Clifford put Chicago ahead in the 38th minute. First-year midfielder Ryan Fitzgerald found Clifford on the run with a pass from the midfield; the striker then cut inside the top of the Judges’ area with a stepover and curved a shot into the side of the net. The lone strike reinforced Clifford’s place atop the points chart with his sixth goal of the year.
The Maroons would hold on to the 1–0 lead for the rest of the game, something they weren’t able to do last weekend at Carnegie Mellon, where two late goals denied Chicago a victory they felt they deserved.
“I was really happy with the way the second half went, in the sense that Brandeis really threw everything at us, including the kitchen sink, and were very aggressive to put us under pressure,” Wiercinski said. “Our back line did a very good job bending but not breaking.”
“We had the heart and resolve to finish it out,” Fitzgerald added. “That was big step for the team considering we have dropped a few games after having leads.”
The result put Chicago in a good place to compete against NYU, although the Violets proved a greater challenge, both on paper and on the pitch. Last season, NYU and Chicago played out an epic match at Stagg Field, with the visitors taking the lead in the second half, only for the Maroons to score in the last seven seconds of the match through then–third year Andrew Hamilton. The match ended in a 1–1 tie after two overtime periods—the first time the Violets had been stymied all season.
Late drama again shaped the result of Sunday’s game, although it was the home team who emerged victorious. A slow start by the Maroons allowed NYU to take a 1–0 lead within 15 minutes, as third-year forward Adam Dhanens struck from inside the Chicago area.
Early in the second half, Friday’s assist-provider turned into Sunday’s goal-scorer as Fitzgerald equalized for the South Siders, floating in a half-volley from the top of the box after a lay-off by Hamilton.
Although the game settled down after Fitzgerald’s strike, Chicago ultimately succumbed to another lapse in concentration. Two goals in two minutes—the first by Dhanens from five yards out, and the second added by third-year midfielder Robert Keller from 10 yards—put Chicago into a deeper hole, although they never gave up on the cause.
“What I was really happy with was that our guys fought hard and worked hard to try to get back in the game, and really put a lot of pressure on NYU in the last 25 minutes or so,” Wiercinski said.
Their efforts paid off in the 83rd minute as Hamilton was dragged down inside the box while posting up for a long throw-in. The referee awarded the Maroons a penalty kick, which was dispatched successfully by fourth-year midfielder Stu Phelps. Although the team was unable to rally for a late equalizer, the game was one where the overall endeavor requited for some of the deficiencies.
“In many ways we played well enough to win the game, but we just had a few lapses that cost us more than we would have liked,” Fitzgerald said.
The growth of men’s soccer this season will be judged upon these last few weeks of conference action. The Maroons must still confront three of the top four teams in the UAA: Case (10–3, 2–2), Rochester (10–2–1, 4–0), and Wash U (10–3, 3–1). Before league play resumes, though, the team will face regional powerhouse Wheaton (9–2–1), who are coming off a six-game win streak. The Thunder, who have outscored their opponents 32–10, will leave the defense with their hands full, although Wiercinski hopes the back five will reproduce the performance against Brandeis.
“One of the big things [that the defense is working on] is anticipation.... Sometimes we have a habit of falling into a phase or a mode of the game where we just react to what happens rather than anticipating and reading what’s going to happen,” Wiercinski said.
Despite the fact that on-field adjustments have not always translated into positive results, Wednesday’s battle at Wheaton will still be one of the high points of the season, because of the traditional rivalry between the two teams, and because the Thunder represent a level of competition that the Maroons must match if they hope to make a late charge into the postseason.
“It’s exciting, certainly, because we get to play another great team, and not go out and play against a team that can’t walk and chew gum—that’s not that much fun. It’s fun to put yourself up against a team that’s nationally ranked,” Wiercinski said. “It’s great to be in those high-pressure situations that matter a lot.”