October 5, 2007

Men’s soccer can’t find finishing touch

Past the halfway mark in the season and staring at a schedule filled with UAA play, men’s soccer is in a less-than-desirable position. As soon as one problem gets solved, a new one pops up, and time is running out for the squad to find a way to bring it all together.

Two late goals sealed a 3–0 loss for the Maroons (5–5–0, 0–1–0 UAA) at home to the UW–Whitewater Warhawks (11–1–0) Wednesday afternoon. The discouraging outing adds to head coach Scott Wiercinski’s worries ahead of a tricky weekend trip to UAA opponents Carnegie Mellon (6–1–0, 0–1–0).

“The next step is to go back to ground zero,” Wiercinski said. “Start from the ground up, and keep working at it.”

Though the Maroons’ defense is still under scrutiny, what stood out the most was an aimless attack that got Chicago off to a slow start against the visitors.

“The disappointing thing, overall, was that we didn’t play the first 20 minutes of the game. We were on the field, but we didn’t really play,” Wiercinski said. “Through the last 70 minutes, we had energy that was often pointless and uncoordinated in terms of the group effort. [Whitewater] was good enough to see past that first level and exploit our lack of pressure as a group.”

After defensive lapses cost Chicago against 12th-ranked Emory (10–0, 1–0) Saturday, Wiercinski stressed the importance of keeping the field more compact and playing a tighter game in the back half. In the opening stretch of the Whitewater match, the defense held a high line and looked steady.

“We did keep the game much smaller, and all of their direct attacks and long balls were playing directly into our goalkeeper’s hands, which is the way it should happen,” Wiercinski said.

The problem lay in the transition game.

“We need to be able to work the ball out of the back, not just kick it out,” said fourth-year midfielder Stuart Phelps. “We weren’t really able to use our midfield [against Whitewater].”

Lacking their usual target man in fourth-year forward Andrew Hamilton, Chicago’s offense played incoherently for the first 20 minutes or so. The substitution of second-year midfielder Jan-Michael Guerra for third-year midfielder Tom Lobell lent more urgency to the attack, but just as the Maroons looked sharper up top, another defensive blunder put the team in a hole.

In the 25th minute, second-year Warhawk midfielder Nick Haertel took the ball through the left channel and fought off a defensive challenge by fourth-year defender Jon Cartwright to send a short, low cross into the box. Unmarked first-year forward Luke Buchholz was on hand to send the ball past first-year goalkeeper Steven Baron to put the visitors ahead.

The scoreline would remain 1–0 despite increased pressure by the Maroons, who finally jumpstarted their offense. First-year wingers Ryan Fitzgerald and Alex Clifford, along with Guerra, contributed with dangerous crosses, but no one was able to test fourth-year goalkeeper E.J. Sesselmann, who finished the game without having to make a single save.

Coming back from the break, both teams started out with a disjointed display of soccer. The Chicago defense continued to hold a high line, forcing Whitewater to harry the back four, and neither team could gain the upper hand. The Warhawks, who had a definite advantage on the physical front, frustrated the Maroons with a series of hard tackles, prompting protests from the home bench, with Wiercinski earning a rare coach’s yellow card for dissent.

Managing to hold until the 84th minute, the Maroons let the last Warhawk slip through when fourth-year defender Ben Volz outpaced the Chicago defense, latched onto an over-the-top pass, and punched his shot beyond an onrushing Baron.

Five minutes later, the game was sealed for good by third-year midfielder Brett Acree. Off a corner, the Warhawks piled on pressure, switching the ball through the defense to Acree on the left, who raced past his defender and toed the ball into the corner of the net.

The Maroons won a late chance to grab a consolation goal when first-year defender Cory Herrick was felled just outside the Warhawks’ box. Clifford’s attempt was low and square and ultimately deflected out of play by another Chicago player in what turned out to be the last real play of the game.

“When we play a team that’s as good as Whitewater, when we play as poorly as we did throughout the game, and when we make mistakes like that, we get punished for them,” Wiercinski said. “In that way, [the scoreline] was kind of justified, however unsavory or distasteful it is.”

The Maroons will have to recover quickly from Wednesday’s outing to get back into UAA opposition with Carnegie Mellon tomorrow. The Tartans didn’t play in the midweek but lost at 10th-ranked Wash U (7–2, 1–0) last weekend. For the rookies, this will be their first road test, one that the veteran players are more familiar with.

“You have a whole different perspective to what’s going on, but in general, we try not to hype it up too much,” Phelps said.

Hype is the last thing the Maroons need, when they are taking this season one day at a time assembling consistency and coherency piece by piece.

“We’re going to improve from this kind of performance,” Wiercinski said. “Nobody’s giving up—it’s just a matter of going back and working at trying to get it right.”