Thanks to Ryan Ehle using his head, men's soccer got the UAA season off on the right foot.
The fourth-year forward headed in a cross from third-year defender Brian Kolva in the 79th minute to lift the Maroons to a 1-0 victory at Carnegie Mellon. The Sunday-afternoon squeaker was the third win in four games for the team, improving its record to 7-2-0.
It was a great way to kick off conference play for the Maroons, currently ranked fourth in the Central Region. The coaches' preseason favorite to win the league for a sixth straight season, the Tartans (5-1-1, 0-1-0) had not allowed a goal in their first six games.
"It's huge. Going on the road is difficult against Carnegie Mellon, and they've been so strong in the league," head coach John O'Connor said. "They're the ones to compete against."
Facing the challenges of a pressure team on a small field, the Maroons stepped up their game, tying up the ball in the middle of the field throughout the first half. Both teams had few chances for most of the game, as excellent defense prevailed over tough offensive units. However, the road warriors appeared to have the advantage, putting together solid 10- to 12-pass sequences and keeping the ball down on the bouncy Astroturf-laden field.
This well competed match continued to hold form through the second half until the 79th minute, when Ehle rushed up to knock Kolva's curving helper past Tartans first-year goalie Matthew Bazin. Kolva relayed the pass from first-year forward Eric Floyd from just outside the goal box.
"We said if we got one quality chance we could win it, and we did," O'Connor said. "Ryan's really been one of our best forwards, and the team has a lot of confidence in him right now."
Facing their first defeat of the season, Carnegie bore down, banging out a flurry of shots off corners and throw-ins in the final three minutes. They had their best shot with a try off a long free kick that ricocheted twice off the crossbar before third-year goalkeeper Keith Crum could clear it. The referee ruled that the ball had not crossed the goal line, ending the threat.
"They were really pumped up to get back even again, but our defense played solid and ended up holding them off," Ehle said. "[Crum] made a lot of clutch saves toward the end."
The barrage gave the Tartans a misleading 11-4 advantage in shots in what was by all accounts a fairly evenly played game. The Maroons were aided by solid play off the bench, as six substitutes appeared for Chicago, facing just one for the home team. The team was also bolstered by fourth-year fullback Peter Schlaefer's defensive unit, which held Carnegie's all-time leading scorer third-year forward Johnathan Browne in check for the duration of the match, and the stalwart play of Crum, who made five saves for his second official shutout of the season.
"[Crum] handled a difficult back pass from one of our guys. Where another goalkeeper might have conceded a goal, he just headed it out. We train our goalies to play with their feet, and I think that's worked out well for him," O'Connor said.
"He really only had to make one difficult save, a point-blank shot from the top of the box where the guy hit it pretty hardhe did a nice job to get down for it. But this year, he's really gotten back to allowing his defense to do his work, and it's worked out well for him."
The win firmly established the Maroons as contenders in a historically tough league that should be as strong as ever this year. Chicago and Carnegie will slug it out with sixth-ranked Rochester (8-0-0, 1-0-0), eighth-ranked NYU (7-2-1, 0-1-0), and ninth-ranked Emory (10-0-0, 1-0-0).
"It's nice to get off to a good start. It puts us in the driver's seat for the rest of the season," Ehle said.
The Maroons will be back on their home field for the first time since September 21 for an afternoon showdown against a 4-4-0 Beloit squad that should play better than its record. It will be the first match of a four-game homestand that includes head-to-heads with UAA co-leaders Emory and Rochester.
"Beloit will be tough. They've had some good results, and traditionally we've had really tight games with them," O'Connor said. "This is a really big game for them, and they have a great attitude. They always come to play."