November 3, 2009

After road trip, Chicago sits third in conference

Men’s soccer came back from its biannual swing through Boston and New York Sunday evening with one win, two shutouts, and sole possession of third place in the UAA standings.

Playing at NYU on Friday, the Maroons (11–3–3, 4–1–1 UAA) got a pair of goals and kept the Violets (6–8–2, 1–3–2) off the board entirely, sealing up a 2–0 victory to start the weekend. As it turned out, those were the only goals Chicago would see all weekend. The Maroons played Brandeis (6–9–2, 1–4–1) to a 0–0 tie Sunday, which was Chicago’s fifth consecutive shutout in conference play.

The Maroons haven’t given up a goal to a UAA opponent since losing 3–0 at Carnegie a month ago, on October 3. That stretch includes a 1–0 shutout of 10th-ranked Rochester (12–1–2, 5–1), and is a big part of the reason Chicago is now assured of finishing no lower than third in the conference, regardless of what happens in Saturday’s regular season finale against Wash U (9–6–3, 3–3).

“If you don’t give up a goal, you’re always in a game you can win,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said of his squad’s shutout streak.

Among the players the Maroons can thank for their recent defensive dominance is second-year goalkeeper Chris Giusto, whose eight saves this weekend (six of them at Brandeis) earned him a UAA Player of the Week nod yesterday afternoon.

But as fourth-year defender Drew Marshall pointed out, you have to look beyond Chicago’s back lines to see why conference opponents have had such trouble finding the net.

“The defensive change has been a total team effort. The forwards have been working back, helping out when possible, and everyone else has made a conscious effort to get into our block eight defending,” Marshall said, referring to the team’s defensive strategy, which relies heavily on midfielders as well as defenders to stem the opponent’s attack.

The impressive play in the defensive third has kept Chicago competitive even when the offense has not quite clicked, which happened in Boston. After scoring twice at NYU—on a header from third-year midfielder Kenzo Manners in the opening ten minutes and on an eight-yard shot off the boot from third-year midfielder Andy Dallos in the final ten minutes—the Maroons put a lot of shots on the scoresheet at Brandeis, but in Wiercinski’s view, not enough that tested the Judges’ goalkeeper Matt Lynch.

“A lot of our best chances were long range,” Wiercinski said. “I think it was a product of our guys lacking some composure when we got in the final third of the field.”

Wiercinski said another pass here or there around the Judges’ box could have given the Maroons the go-ahead goal.

What the game missed in scoring it nearly made up for in bookings. The referee went to his pocket five times on the day. Second-year midfielder Stanton Coville and first-year forward Yoni Einhorn each drew yellows, and Brandeis’s Kyle Gross was sent off with a red card in the 95th minute after being shown his second yellow card.

The 1–0–1 weekend bodes well for Chicago’s chances of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Maroons are third in the NCAA’s central region rankings and figure to remain in a similar position when the new rankings are released tomorrow. A win against Wash U, which is far from certain, wouldn’t wrap up a postseason berth, but it would come close to it.

That said, it’s beating Wash U and not the odds of winning an NCAA bid that is foremost on the players’ minds.

“We are getting focused on the Wash U game and trying not to think about the overall tournament,” Manners said. “We just play game by game, and we will do our best to put a good finish on the regular season.”

As for Wiercinski, he agreed that taking things day-by-day is the best way to approach these late season games.

“Anytime we start thinking about things we can’t control, that’s when we start losing the things we can control,” Wiercinski said.