October 2, 2007

Men's soccer falls in UAA heartbreaker

Last season, the biggest concern for men’s soccer was how new everything was—a new coach, a lot of new players, and a new system that took some time to figure out. Now that they’ve broken the ice, the Maroons have some new concerns, which were never more evident than in Saturday’s UAA opener.

Despite pulling ahead of Emory (10–0, 1–0 UAA) two times in the match, the Maroons (5­–4, 0–1) couldn’t hold off the Eagles from coming away with the win and fell 3–2 in an upsetting double-overtime loss.

“Emory had a pretty impressive record, but we knew we could play with them,” said fourth-year defender Jon Cartwright of the matchup. “They hadn’t been tested by any rigorous competition that is as good as us, so we had the confidence to play.”

The UAA has long been the crux of the season, with its tough physical play and conference-wide hopes of making the NCAA postseason. The Emory match emphasized the best aspects of the team as well as the areas that still need improvement.

“Ultimately, we’re giving up way too many goals,” second-year head coach Scott Wiercinski said. “We’ve got some holes in our defense that we need to plug up before we go too much further, because it’s not a problem that’ll go away if you push it under the rug.”

One of the Maroons’ strengths so far this season has been added intensity in the final third. Against Emory, the early attacking intent paid off in the 10th minute, when the Maroons went ahead through a superb individual effort from first-year forward Alex Clifford. Collecting a long switch from second-year midfielder Joe Farias-Eisner, Clifford held off an Emory defender near the left goal line and sent a low shot into the corner of the net with little angle to spare.

Clifford, with a brace on Saturday, leads the Maroons’ quick and technical offense, topping the point charts with four goals and three assists.

“Soccer’s all about being unselfish and making good passing decisions,” Clifford said. “But if there’s a opening, and you’ve got the angle, you have to shoot, because at the end of the day there can’t be any regrets.”

Although the offense was firing at will, defensive lapses eventually caught up with the Maroons. Against Emory, the defense started out with Cartwright pushed out wide and 6-foot-two first-year Michael Steinert occupying a central position.

“Our goal was to put [second-year central defender John] Hughes and Steinert one-on-one against [third-year forwards Patrick McFarland and Patrick Carver] as often as possible,” Cartwright said.

That game plan held steady until the 39th minute, when a long throw-in by McFarland went uncleared inside the box; finally, first-year substitute forward Michael Scannapieco got a foot on the ball and bagged the equalizer for the visitors.

The second half offered more of the same, and after a long period where both teams exchanged speculative but unthreatening shots, Clifford again put the home team ahead. In the 73rd minute, second-year midfielder Ryan Fitzgerald—a red-shirt transfer from Oregon State—took on a couple of Emory defenders on the left edge of the box and won enough space to look up and pick out a pass into the center of the box. Second-year forward Edgar Friloux was in the vicinity but opted to dummy the pass for Clifford, whose low shot gave fourth-year goalkeeper Keith Meehan no chance and the Maroons a 2–1 lead.

Five minutes later, Carver tied it up once again among a rush of confusion on the sideline. After latching onto a back-header, Carver chipped first-year goalkeeper Steven Baron, who rushed out of his box in an attempt to intercept the shot. It seemed as though Steinert had saved it, but the sideline referee indicated that the ball had crossed the line, and the game was all squared.

A couple of chances by McFarland in the dying minutes nearly sealed the game for Emory, but the Maroons held on to force sudden-death overtime. Carver nearly won it eight minutes into OT, but this time, his header off the bottom of the crossbar was cleared by Steinert on the bounce without any differing indication by the sideline ref.

With another 10 minutes set on the clock, Carver was ready to try again. Two minutes into play he converted his own brace, latching onto the ball in the Maroons’ backfield and slotting it past Baron.

The struggles in the back line are common to all developing teams, and the Maroons are no exception.

“Dealing with adjustments like that is all about communication.... It’s something that we really do require a significant amount of work on, and will continue to improve,” Cartwright said.

The loss comes at a time when new players must find their footing, and Wiercinski must put his single year of UAA experience to the test.

“It is certainly much more comfortable this year, knowing what to expect coming into each game,” Wiercinski said. “You can zoom out and see the bigger picture as well. There’s still a lot of opportunities to play against great teams and hopefully beat them.”

For the Maroons, the bigger picture shows an up-and-down season so far, and a program that is trying to prove that its NCAA appearance last year was more than just a pleasant surprise. With the loss registered to Emory and three more top-25 teams ahead on the UAA schedule (sixth-ranked Case Western, 11th-ranked NYU, and 20th-ranked Wash U), the real obstacles still lie ahead.

Before league soccer resumes for Chicago, though, they will host UW–Whitewater (10–1) tomorrow in a game that will give the team another chance to solidify the defense in preparation for their first UAA game away from Stagg Field.

“I don’t want to say it’s a low-stakes opportunity, but it’s a non-conference game, so we have a little more flexibility with being creative or experimental.... Psychologically, we’re going after the game like all the rest,” Wiercinski said.