November 17, 2009

Wartburg hangs onto slim lead to end season for men's soccer

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All season long, men’s soccer made a habit of pulling out dramatic victories by scoring goals exactly when they were needed most, but in the first round of the NCAA playoffs, the Maroons finally ran out of late-game heroics.

Despite largely controlling play in Friday’s match against Wartburg (17–4–1), which was played on the artificial turf at Wheaton’s Joe Bean Stadium, Chicago (12–4–3) fell 2–1 to the Knights and was knocked out of the NCAA tournament.

Chicago’s knack for timely goals was on display throughout the season. Chicago scored two late goals against Augustana to win their season opener 2–1, and then, in conference play, second-year midfielder Stan Coville twice scored goals in the 100th minute to earn Chicago 1–0, overtime wins over Rochester and Wash U.

But Friday night, there would be no such magic against Wartburg.

The Knights struck with an early goal that put Chicago in comeback mode almost from the very beginning of the game. Wartburg’s leading scorer Nate Hedrington nodded Kyle McKenna’s cross past the hands of second-year goalkeeper Chris Giusto, giving the Knights a 1–0 lead in only the third minute.

Chicago wasted little time regaining level terms with Wartburg. Taking full advantage of the fast turf field, Coville played a perfectly weighted pass to release third-year midfielder Alex Clifford down the right wing. Clifford then struck a teasing low cross that third-year midfielder Manners redirected into the goal at the near post to tie the score at 1–1 in the 10th minute.

Both teams scored so quickly that the game appeared poised to become a shootout, but that never materialized. Instead, both teams tightened their defenses, and as the half wore on, Chicago began to control possession and create the better chances.

Just before halftime, first-year forward Yoni Einhorn’s delicate through ball found first-year midfielder Steven Chase in stride in the right channel, but Chase’s shot sailed directly into the arms of Wartburg’s all-American goalkeeper Trent Michael.

After the break, the Maroons continued to dominate the action, and only two brilliant plays by Michael prevented Chicago from taking the lead.

In the 56th minute, Michael’s quick reaction save denied fourth-year defender Drew Marshall’s header from a corner kick. Just three minutes later, Einhorn burst through the Wartburg defense to receive a long lob and found himself one-on-one with Michael. The first-year struggled to control the bouncing ball and, with Michael charging off his line, Einhorn was forced to shoot early. His shot sailed high, and with it went one of Chicago’s best scoring chances.

Cruelly, the Knights scored from an almost identical situation in the 62nd minute. A rare defensive breakdown from Chicago’s back line allowed Brandon Cook a breakaway down the right channel. With Giusto coming off his line, Cook showed his poise and delivered a low shot towards the far post. Giusto managed to get a glove on it, but the ball still carried in to the goal.

Chicago spent the last 28 minutes of the game pushing forward relentlessly, but Wartburg dug in and defended in numbers. Coville’s 81st minute header provided Chicago’s best chance to equalize, but Trent was once again up to the challenge, and tipped it over the crossbar.

While disappointed at the loss, Clifford felt that this season’s experiences would benefit the team in the future.

“We are all responsible for our loss, and it doesn’t feel good to have let the seniors down. Still, we had a great run, and we are a closer team because of all the effort and camaraderie shown this season,” he said.

While those fourth-years (Marshall, forward Edgar Friloux, midfielder Gabe Iatarola, and reserve goalkeeper Ben Carey) will be missed, Chicago is an uncommonly young team that should be even better next year.

“We had a great season this year, but we got lucky at times,” Clifford said. “Next year, we will have more seniority than other teams, which means more experience, more maturity, and more leadership.”