November 15, 2005

Wartburg shootout eliminates men’s soccer

The winds were high and the sky was dark. It was an appropriately foreboding setting for what was about to take place. After almost 1,900 minutes of hard-fought play, the men’s soccer team’s season was down to its last chance. Down 3–2 on penalty kicks after two overtimes failed to break a 1–1 tie against Wartburg, the Maroons needed a save from third-year backup keeper Tommy Bailey to stay alive.

They didn’t get it.

Knights fourth-year Scott Hill banged one past Bailey to slam the door on Chicago, eliminating them from the NCAA Tournament in the second round at Waverly, Iowa. It was the second battle in a row for the Maroons, who pulled out their first match of the tourney in dramatic fashion with a 90th-minute equalizer from fourth-year midfielder Giordano Palloni and a double-overtime golden goal from his classmate striker Ryan Ehle to beat St. John’s 3–2.

“We played very, very well both days,” head coach John O’Connor said. “The difference was their goalkeeper. He made two very good saves. Bailey was the man of the match for us. To come in for [third-year goalkeeper] Keith [Crum] like that, in a tough game, playing two overtimes? He came up big for us.

“They were tough games. I thought Saturday was as exciting as you’re going to get.”

No one could have guessed how much pulse-pounding excitement was in the works for the Maroons from the early going against the Johnnies. The team didn’t look like an inexperienced team, playing their own game for the lion’s share of the first half. Chicago continued to have problems closing around the net, but didn’t let St. John’s escape unscathed as third-year striker Alex Chinco rocketed a ball played in by fourth-year right midfielder Joe Frontczak into the net at 8:58 for an early lead. It was Chinco’s first goal of the year.

“We’d had a little bit of a run of play, and we felt like we were getting there,” O’Connor said. “Alex has this way of doing these things in practice a lot, but because of the way he plays he doesn’t get a lot of opportunities in games. It was a nice goal.”

The men had a number of chances, banging at least one off the crossbar, but were unable to convert again before the break. The Johnnies were able to exert more pressure as the game dragged on but couldn’t break through.

The Maroons might have been able to hold the 1–0 score through the final, but one moment early in the second radically changed the face of the game. On a routine 52nd-minute clearance, Crum came down hard on his left knee, twisting it to the side and spraining his MCL. The injury forced O’Connor to go with Bailey, who had played less than three hours over the course of the season.

“Everyone’s got a lot of confidence in Tommy,” fourth-year midfielder Jimmy Logan said. “He could be starting for a lot of other teams in the country. We’re pretty fortunate to have two great keepers on the roster.”

The substitution in the backfield seemed to give momentum to the Johnnies. Fourth-year forward Dan Swift relayed a corner kick from third-year midfielder Jerry D’Alessandro into the net to tie things up at 73:50, and fourth-year forward Tudor Flintham knocked one home for the go-ahead goal with just 4:19 left in the game, putting the Maroons on the rope. After a six-shot deficit in the first half, St. John’s matched Chicago shot-for-shot with 11 in the back 45.

“As time went by, we couldn’t get the goal to put the game out of reach, and they kept hanging around,” Logan said. “The longer they hung around, the more they felt like they were in the game. We had a lot of chances, but we couldn’t quite get that second shot in.”

With their careers all but finished, the team’s seniors refused to go quietly. With 33 seconds remaining, second-year midfielder Stu Phelps drew a foul at the top of the box. Palloni set up for the free kick, and drilled a perfect shot just over the wall and into the right side of the goal. Despite it all, the game was headed for overtime.

“That’s something that little kids dream about,” O’Connor said. “I think Gio will remember that shot for the rest of his life.”

“Everyone was very, very excited, but everyone expected that we were still going to be in this game, that we weren’t quite done,” Logan said. “When that shot went in, we knew our season was back in our own hands.”

Palloni’s heroics seemed to be just what Chicago needed to regain form. The team controlled the game through most of the overtime periods and hit the post twice. It was seemingly only a matter of time before the Maroons broke through. As happened so often in the regular season, it was left to Frontczak and Ehle, who recorded his second golden goal of the season at 117:02 to lift the team into the next round.

“It’s hard to explain, what the overtime goal was like. It was so nice to know that we were still alive for one more day and still in control of our destiny,” Logan said.

The next day started with a number of ominous signs for the team. Crum, who had recorded a 0.83 goals-against average and six shutouts on the year, was still unavailable, thrusting Bailey into his first career start against a Wartburg team with 17 wins under their belts.

The brutal weather—strong winds that threatened to move the match—was well matched by the play on the field. After a deflection turned an easy save into a fluke goal in the 33rd minute by Wartburg fourth-year midfielder Kirk Artist, the Maroons turned to fourth-year midfielder and offensive spark plug Brain Standerfer to tie things up at 42:25.

“I’m not sure if he was trying to shoot it or cross it. He put it in the air and the wind just kind of took it and put it in the top corner,” Logan said.

The dogfight was on from there, as Chicago held off a furious Knights assault through the rest of the game. Wartburg outshot the Maroons 10–5 in the second half, as the team struggled to play to their strengths with the wind keeping the ball in the air. Neither side was able to complete on any chances through the rest of regulation or through two extra periods, despite multiple notable chances for Chicago. On the scoresheet, the game ended in a tie, but to determine who would capture the Sweet-16 berth on the line, each squad prepared for PKs.

“It’s always pretty frustrating when the game is decided on penalty kicks. A lot of people feel that’s not necessarily the best way to decide who wins the game,” Logan said.

Chicago shot first, with first-year defender and free-kick ace Ross Fedenia leading off. Fedenia missed, as did the team’s third shooter, second-year left back Eric Kirkenmeier. While Standerfer and Frontczak both made their shots, all four Wartburg players scored, sending the Maroons home.

“A shootout’s a shootout, and we’ve been on the other end of it. We won a shootout in the Final Four against Wheaton in 1996 that some would have said we didn’t deserve to win. I thought we were the better team yesterday.” O’Connor said. “We felt like we had a run, especially in overtime. Not to get something in overtime was really disappointing. The guys felt like Wartburg had really gotten off the hook. To me, it didn’t sink in until about 3:00 a.m. that night how close it was. I don’t think it’ll really sink in for them until today or tomorrow.”

While all those involved with men’s soccer had hoped for a deeper run, there were considerable positives to take away from this season. The team qualified for the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2001. The Maroons’ 14–5–1 record tied them with that 2001 squad for the second-most wins in program history.

“When it came down to the big game, they were able to rise to the occasion,” O’Connor said. “If you look at the games where this team had to win, they played their hardest, and found different ways to win. Against Wartburg, I don’t think of the 22 guys that dressed there wasn’t a guy who didn’t give everything they had. I’m proud of them. It’s not easy to rise to it each time.”

Looking ahead to next year, the squad will have to replace a number of top scorers as Ehle and Palloni graduate. The team also loses Standerfer, Logan, early graduate Chinco, stalwart defender Peter Schlaefer and sub defender Il Yong Jung. However, the team will return such standouts as Fedenia, first-year forward Eric Floyd (seven goals, one assist), second-years forward Andrew Hamilton and defender Jon Cartwright, along with Crum, Bailey, and Frontczak, the last who will take advantage of his 2003 medical red-shirt. The group should benefit from their experience in the NCAAs.

“One of the first things guys said in the locker room, and that I said to a few of the guys was, ‘We’ll be back,’” O’Connor said. “On defense, we’ll be really solid, and in the wide areas and up top we’re in good shape. The big question is going to be center mid, and that will either be solved by guys on the team now thrust into new roles, or by recruiting. I won’t be surprised if we get back into the same position next year. One year in the tourney will make a big difference in where we are a year from now.”