DURHAM, N.H. – America East No. 1 seed University of New Hampshire (UNH) men’s soccer (8-0-1, 5-0-1) defeated No. 2 seed Vermont (5-2-1, 4-1-1) 2-0 in Wildcat Stadium to earn their third straight America East Championship and its fourth consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats first defeated No. 4 Hartford (3-3-1, 3-2-1) in the first round of the America East Tournament to advance to the America East Championship by a score of 2-0 but it was a closer game than many expected.
Both teams fought aggressively for possession in the first 10 minutes of the game as each side seemed to have some nerves. Hartford was going with the wind in the first half and was able to stretch the field and get loose behind the UNH defense. Graduate student goalkeeper Alejandro Robles stood tall for the ‘Cats making six saves throughout the contest and tallying his 11th career shutout.
UNH reacted with some pressure of their own as sophomore Bilal Kamal put a shot on net but first-year Hartford goalkeeper Rotem Fadida. The Wildcats kept fighting through the wind and finally broke the stalemate when senior Victor Menudier headed a pass toward the goal, but it was saved by Fadida. Menudier recovered his own rebound and booted the ball into the back of the net.
The first half ended with each side having a fair number of chances. Both teams had four shots on goal but UNH was the only one to score.
Coming out of the locker room UNH wasted no time going with the wind. The UNH defense rocketed a pass from their own end to find Menudier streaking down the right side of the field. Menudier got past the Hawks defense and shot the ball past the keeper extending the UNH to two.
Hartford didn’t quit on the game and Robles had to come up with another couple saves to keep the Hawks off the scoreboard. Fadida also had a respectable performance coming up with eight saves but couldn’t will his team past the powerhouse that is the UNH Wildcats.
Head coach Marc Hubbard didn’t like the way the Wildcats started the game but the reaction after the tough start is what got his attention.
“We talked about having a good start but we didn’t. Hartford came out with some pressure and intensity. With the wind in our face, we had a little trouble playing through that,” Hubbard said. “We definitely weathered the storm and a series of corner kicks and our guys battled through. That’s always been a testament of our program and being able to battle through those kinds of things.”
He went on to explain how important the first goal was for the ‘Cats.
“The goal right before half is always good to score, it’s an important time on either side of half and we did it.” He added, “it definitely alleviates pressure and gives us more confidence on the ball.”
The No. 10 nationally ranked Wildcats then moved on to the America East Championship where they were met by Vermont.
Vermont had been a tough opponent all season for the ‘Cats tying in their first contest and then losing to the Wildcats in the second 2-1. UVM has been the little brother to UNH all season long and that continued on Saturday. Vermont failed to come out of this one with the hardware as UNH claimed its third straight America East Title making them the third team ever to three-peat. They follow UMBC (2012, 2013, 2014) and Boston University (1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997).
This is a turnaround unlike any other as just three years ago the Wildcats were still searching for their first America East title and now with three titles in hand, they are looking to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats defeated Vermont in a near identical fashion as Hartford. They struggled with another nerve-filled opening 10 minutes but bounced back fast. They put their first shot on goal in the 15th minute, but it was saved by Vermont’s senior goalkeeper Nathan Silveira.
The Catamounts battled back with a high lofting cross that ended up on net and forced Robles to come out and make the save. UNH then marched the ball down field and junior Chris Pinkham received a beautiful cross-field pass from graduate student Sam Henneberg and fired the ball past the keeper giving UNH the 1-0 lead just before halftime.
Exiting halftime Vermont came out with heavy pressure and put another two shots on goal but Robles was there to make the saves yet again. With Robles standing tall and preserving the 1-0 lead UNH took advantage of their opportunity with a goal from Menudier.
With the insurance goal from Menudier, UNH held on to the lead clinching their bid for the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats posted a 12-9 shot advantage, but it was the Catamounts who held the shots on goal advantage 6-5. Robles saved all six leaving yet another opponent scoreless against him and the ‘Cats.
The Wildcats went the season undefeated and claimed a number of America East Awards. The first being Menudier being named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player scoring three out of four UNH goals. Menudier, Henneberg, Robles and first-year Yannick Bright were named to the All-Championship Team. Sophomore Michael Clow won the America East Elite 18 Award for having the highest cumulative grade-point average of anyone in the contest with a 3.64 GPA.
Coach Hubbard was proud of the way his team was able to perform this season but wants to keep focus for what’s ahead.
“It feels like another step in the journey, you know not too high, not too low type of thing,” Hubbard said. “In terms of what our guys have had to sacrifice to this point and not having a healthy team and even in this game we had some adversity we had to deal with, with Yannick [Bright] going down and guys with two games in three days just managed their legs and ability to perform in unreal ways. So, I’m proud of them given everything else they’ve had to sacrifice as well.”
The Wildcats earned themselves a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament and will take on Kentucky (11-4-2, 3-3-1 Conference USA) on Sunday, May 2 at noon in Bryan Park Soccer Complex in Greensboro, N.C.
Photos courtesy of China Wong.