The No. 9 Wildcats seem on the verge of taking the next step but can’t find their final gear. University of New Hampshire (UNH) men’s soccer (6-0-0) took all three games on their most recent road trip before conference play begins Sept. 15. The final two games were against Michigan (3-2-1) and Marist (3-3), which the ‘Cats won 1-0 and 2-1, respectively.
Junior Bilal Kamal fired home the only goal of the game versus Michigan. The talented midfielder from London was brilliant when a corner kick rebounded his way in the 39th minute. While the Wildcats’ offense failed to add any insurance goals to their lead, junior goalkeeper Jassem Koleilat turned in another phenomenal performance with three saves that preserved the UNH lead.
The road got a little bumpier when the ‘Cats rolled into Marist Tuesday. The team that has never trailed prior to Tuesday faced adversity early on that night. UNH conceded their first goal from open play this season in the sixth minute to first-year striker Richard Morel. A quickly played through-ball caught the UNH defense out and Morel deftly slid his shot past a charging Koleilat.
Head coach Marc Hubbard said the goal was a tough one to take.
“It was awaited ball between the back and goalie and snuck under Jassem [Koleilat]. He got a touch to it, just not enough to keep it out,” said Hubbard.
The goal left stunned looks on the faces of the UNH defenders who hadn’t seen their goal breached since a penalty late in the game versus Providence. Things appeared to go from bad to worse when Koleilat was seemingly beaten again by Morel minutes later. The referee’s whistle came to the Wildcats’ rescue. Morel’s second was waved off for a handball just before the finish. The would-have-been goal was yet another launched through ball that exposed the UNH backline. Whether or not this issue will rear its head again remains to be seen.
A sure-fire way to improve any defense is currently sidelined for UNH. Graduate student center back and first-team All-American Bridger Hansen hasn’t seen a minute of play since the Wildcats’ home opener versus Colgate. When asked if Hansen was dealing with an injury, Hubbard stated simply, “No injury.”
The ‘Cats got their act together as the disallowed goal proved a momentum shifter. The Wildcats poured forward and put pressure on the Red Foxes, looking far more like the team people have grown accustomed to this season.
A foul drawn about 10 yards outside the Marist penalty box set up the equalizer. Graduate student Sam Henneberg booted an in-swinging ball. The curling cross was inch-perfect and found the cleat of senior striker Tola Showunmi. The Wildcats’ leading goal scorer added his third with a tap-in finish at the far post. The 21st-minute goal was the Englishman’s first point since the second game of the season. Showunmi has played a big role for the Wildcats this season and looked the part for the first two games before goals dried up. Time will tell if this goal sparked a reignition of his earlier form.
Hubbard said he was pleased with his team’s fight to get back in the game after trailing for the first time all season.
“I’m proud of [the team’s effort],” said Hubbard. “It’s hard to be on the road, especially midweek. It wasn’t an easy trip. It was our third away game in a row. We just came off a big win against Michigan. I’m proud of the way we played.”
The goal invigorated the UNH attack further, and chances continued to flow from set-pieces and open play. Fifth-year forward Jacob Gould was played in on goal by a wonderful through ball. The veteran striker was alone with the keeper but had his low effort saved. The lack of a clinical finish is something UNH has dealt with this season. Many of its established scorers haven’t yet found their groove.
Marist finished the half with only one shot, but it found the back of the net. UNH managed four shots on goal with seven total. But only Showunmi had the finishing touch.
UNH applied pressure from the get-go in the second half. But Marist didn’t crack until the referee pointed to the spot in the 62nd minute. Gould was taken down by sliding tackle from behind, and much to Marist’s vocal disapproval was awarded a penalty kick. Junior midfielder Rory O’Driscoll stepped up to take the shot from 12 yards out. The reigning America East Midfielder of the Year had ice in his veins. A slight hop before his foot met the ball sent Marist’s keeper in the wrong direction, and O’Driscoll slotted the ball in the bottom left corner. O’Driscoll chose to shush a crowd that had been vocal all night.
“[I took] A lot of satisfaction with that shush,” said O’Driscoll postgame. “They were very kind to follow instructions and quiet down as directed. The fans were talking a lot, but that’s a part of the game. Felt great to win at the end of the day.”
And win they did. The rest of the game went according to plan for the Wildcats. UNH created chances, won corners and drew fouls, though an insurance goal eluded them. Marist never regained their attacking form from the opening minutes of play and looked too tired to chase down the ‘Cats as the final minutes ticked off the clock.
Coach Hubbard said the lack of finishing wasn’t too much a cause for concern.
“It’s more of a problem if you’re not creating [scoring chances],” said Hubbard.
UNH certainly created chances ending the game with 16 shots and eight on net. The ‘Cats also had nine corners and took 12 free kicks. But the lack of goal scoring will be a concern no matter how many shots are taken. UNH has failed to score more than two goals in a game, which they did three times in their seven regular-season games last spring. With conference play beginning next game, now would be an excellent time for UNH to find their shooting cleats.
Photo courtesy of Meghan Murphy