SPORTS

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October 21, 2008

Late comebacks set tone for men’s soccer action

[img id="76876" align="alignleft"] It was the same old story.

In the 88th minute of Friday’s game against Brandeis, the Maroons found themselves on the brink of yet another loss, unable to break through after scoring an own-goal to put the Judges up 1–0.

There was nothing left to lose.

Then, first-year forward Stanton Coville received the ball just inside the Brandeis area and tried to turn past his defender. The two tussled, and Coville was dragged down to the turf.

The ref blew his whistle immediately and pointed to the penalty spot, brandishing a red card at the offender, fourth-year defender Kevin Murphy.

Second-year forward Alex Clifford lined up the ball, waited for the official’s signal, and calmly stepped up to bury his penalty kick into the back of the net.

The Maroons (5–6–3, 1–2–1 UAA) hadn’t scored a goal in 13 long days, since the UAA opener at Emory, and this goal restored a small measure of confidence, something that the Maroons desperately needed in a season marred by injuries and inconsistencies.

But the game wasn’t over. Brandeis (6–6–2, 0–2–2), with its own struggling offense, also had something to prove and pushed forward with the clock winding down. A long pass from the midfield resulted in a mad scramble outside the Chicago area, and with six seconds left in regulation, the Judges had won a free kick just outside the Chicago area.

Up stepped third-year midfielder Corey Bradley, who sent a left-footed curler past the wall of defenders, only to rattle straight off the far post and away to safety. Time expired. The Maroons had survived.

As if the nerve-wracking nature of the closing minutes weren’t enough, Chicago experienced another scare in the first overtime period, when first-year right back Ryan McPherson collided with fourth-year Brandeis forward Ben Premo at midfield. McPherson seemed to land on his left arm, and what followed was an uneasy few minutes before the defender’s arm could be stabilized enough to move him off the field.

Although the Maroons were playing with a man advantage, Brandeis defended their goal diligently, and the match ended 1–1 after 110 minutes that featured physical play and end-to-end action.

Friday’s tilt with Brandeis had promised to be rough and tumble from the very beginning, although the studs were kept hidden until later in the match, and the Maroons were able to assert themselves physically.

“I think we are tougher than people think,” Clifford said. “Brandeis and NYU are physical opponents, but I think we did most of the pushing and fouling this weekend. Our game plan was to return tackles with tackles, fouls with fouls. Playing at home definitely helped.”

Both teams produced scoring chances in a back-and-forth first half, kept in check by strong defensive plays. The Judges came out of the break much stronger, however, and piled on the pressure.

In a twist of fate, perhaps fitting for two misfiring offensive units, the tiebreaker came in the form of an own-goal. At the 65:54 mark, substitute Brandeis third-year midfielder Alex Zenerovitz got deep into the Maroons’ territory and sent in a cross that was turned behind first-year goalkeeper Chris Giusto by his own defender for a 1–0 lead.

Then came the late penalty, the even later and potentially spirit-crushing free kick, and the freak injury to one of the team’s brightest rookies.

The weekend wasn’t over, with the Maroons slated to face NYU (5–6–3, 0–4) Sunday. This time, the only bizarre occurrence happened on the sidelines, when Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah made an appearance in the stands. On the pitch, the Maroons played with newfound confidence, again coming from behind in the dying minutes to tie the game. This time, they eventually defeated NYU 2–1 in overtime, giving Chicago its first UAA victory of the season.

The Violets took a 12th-minute lead through first-year Badr Bevaart after the forward was left onside to collect a floated pass, take a few steps into the Chicago box, and fire past Giusto for a 1–0 lead.

Despite conceding early, the Maroons went on the offensive, outshooting NYU 10–8 in the first half and 27–10 overall.

“We had a good week at practice, we trained and competed hard throughout the week, and I think our players came into the games with good attitudes about what they were going to do and what they were going to try to accomplish,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said. “Part of that good attitude was to be aggressive on the attack. On Friday night we created a lot of chances and didn’t score, and [Sunday] we created even more.”

The Maroons found another dimension to their game in the second half as NYU’s fitness flagged and Chicago imposed their transition game through fourth-year midfielders Eric Kirkenmeier and Gabe Iatarola, whose energy coming off the bench allowed the Maroons to play their preferred style of possession soccer.

In the 70th minute, Chicago’s pressure nearly paid off on a corner kick, when first-year defender Rashad Masri’s hard half-volley rang agonizingly off the crossbar and out of play.

Still, the Maroons remained on the attack, and the 88th minute proved fortunate again, when Clifford swerved his way past three NYU defenders and sent in a low cross from the left that eluded Urbanski. Second-year winger Andy Dallos found ample space to run into the box and slot the ball home. Overtime beckoned again, just as Chicago was playing with increased confidence.

This time, the Maroons made their efforts count. Clifford was again the architect, when in the 99th minute, he deked past his defender and looked up to see second-year midfielder Kenzo Manners streaking into the box, unmarked. Clifford pulled his pass back perfectly into Manners’s path, and his side-footed shot bulged the net, handing Chicago a 2–1 victory.

With all the oddities and near escapes surrounding the weekend, the Maroons are focusing on the positives of their game and looking to build upon their first win in seven games.

“We have four games left, and [our opponents] all have better records than us, so we have nothing to lose. We just need to compete every inch in practice and continue improving,” Manners said.

The Maroons will have to do so on the road, since NYU was their last home game of the season, but for Wiercinski, the venue matters less than the improvements themselves.

“The good week at practice, and then playing well in two games and getting better results, really injected us with more life,” he said. “We hope that that confidence will keep us going, and propel us into the next matches.”