SPORTS

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November 2, 2007

Struggling men's soccer looks to become upset kings

Last year, men’s soccer wrapped up the regular season knowing it had a shot at playing another day with the postseason. Saturday, the Maroons will take the field at Stagg with a different mindset. This time, there is no tomorrow.

After 2006’s Cinderella story, where the squad rallied under a new head coach to crack the first round of NCAAs, this fall started full of promise. Then the Maroons that had everything going for them, with veterans to anchor the team, rookies set to make an impact, and Scott Wiercinski back at the helm, couldn’t find a way to put the puzzle pieces together.

“This season hasn’t really peaked in a way that I would’ve liked it to,” fourth-year defender Jon Cartwright said.

Taking a 6–9–1, 1–4–1 UAA record into the showdown with Wash U (13–4–1, 4–1–1) is way off the mark from where the Maroons wanted to be at the end of year, but the lopsided numbers don’t belong to a team that is an easy pushover by any standard. The storyline run for Chicago in 2007 has been of a team that started strong but then faded in the final minutes to lose its hold on the match.

With the speed of first-year striker Alex Clifford setting the pace up top to the tune of a team-leading six goals on the season, the squad has outscored opponents in the first half 15–10. Returning from the break though, the offense has fizzled and the defense has buckled under sustained pressure, ending with the Maroons getting outscored 16–6 in the second half.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to figure out the whole season,” said fourth-year midfielder Stu Phelps on the team’s struggle to finish. “There are sections of play where we don’t play hard enough. Sometimes it takes the other team scoring to get us going and other times we get ahead and then start to let up.”

The failure to lock up early advantages stung the squad the harshest in the double overtime loss to the Emory (15–2–0, 5–1–0) September 29 to open league play. Launching a pitched battle against the then 24th-ranked Eagles, the Maroons pulled ahead twice and came within minutes of closing out the win before dropping the match 3–2. In each of its three overtime games this year, Chicago was the first on the board only to eventually relent the lead.

With the 19th-ranked Bears coming into town, this weekend marks the last chance for the Maroons to prove that their first-half performances are the real thing and the second halves have been the flukes. It’s also their chance to play the spoiler for their archrival’s playoff hopes.

“I just want to come out of the game and feel like we played like a team for a complete 90 minutes,” Phelps said. “It’s our last game together as a team, regardless of seniors or freshman.”

Standing in the squad’s way of finding a happy ending to a tumultuous season is a Wash U team looking to punch its ticket for a return trip to NCAAs. Third in the league standings, the Bears are currently on the bubble. They’ll be ready to pounce on any lapses by Chicago in a showdown that will see the clash of two finesse teams, with the ability to maintain possession and control the ball on the ground likely to determine the winner.

In last year’s contest held at the Bear’s lair, Wash U proved more effective in sticking to their tactics. They outshot the Maroons 7–0 in the first half and 12–3 by the final whistle. Despite the relentless attack, Chicago managed to keep the game deadlocked at 0–0 with less than two minutes remaining in the match.

Where other UAA teams like 12th-ranked Rochester (11–2–2, 4–0–1) and 24th-ranked NYU (12–4–1, 3–3–0) try to use their size to power up the middle of the field, the Bears, like the Maroons work from many angles and rely on passing to bring the ball up the seams. Playing against their own game plan is going to be an even bigger challenge for the Maroons than going up against squads with the physical advantage. The key for Chicago tomorrow will be staying patient and jumping on any turnover opportunities.

“It really levels the playing field and brings it down to a one-on-one level,” Phelps said. “We’re going to need to beat them to a man.”