DURHAM, N.H. — There were no smiles in Durham Tuesday night, for the mighty University of New Hampshire (UNH) men’s soccer team (12-0-1, 4-0-0) squandered a one-goal lead in the 87th minute. The Wildcats had to swallow their first dropped points of the season in a shocking draw with the Yale (4-4-3, 1-0-1) Bulldogs. The performance was their worst of the season and was sloppy from start to finish. Missed chances on offense combined with disjointed and unfocused defense were just the most significant flaws in an uncharacteristic night for the ‘Cats.
The result comes just hours after UNH was voted the fourth-best team in the country, the program’s first time in the top-five. The Wildcats have a chance to rebound and possibly save some places in the rankings versus Vermont on Saturday. But this result will almost certainly see UNH tumble from the top-five.
With games like these, it’s best to dissect the body one piece at a time, and there’s no better place to start than the offense. UNH’s attack had been red-hot before facing Yale. The ‘Cats were scoring at will, putting up 19 goals in their last five matches. What looked to be a runaway train came to a screeching halt Tuesday night.
UNH had plenty of the ball in the attacking third. They rained in corners (10) and shots (16), but the accuracy was absent. Only five shots from the ‘Cats tested the Yale keeper, and few were close to beating him. The UNH forwards squandered chance after chance. The usually clinical finishers that have propelled this team to one of the best in the country were not themselves.
Senior Chris Pinkham said the Wildcats played the game Yale wanted and not their own. He pointed to the team’s complacency with a one-goal lead as the principal fault in their mindset.
“We need to focus on putting teams away when we are up by a goal or two and not give them any hope,” said Pinkham.
Graduate student Paul Mayer had three goals in his last two games. But versus Yale, he was snake-bit and squandered some of the clearest chances of the game. Mayer had four shots with only one on goal. His worst miss of the night came three minutes into the second half. Senior Tola Showunmi blew past his defender and into the Yale box. The Englishman didn’t have the angle for a shot but found Mayer wide-open on the penalty spot. The reigning America East Offensive Player of the Week had time and space but not the technique. The Frenchman pulled his low shot about a yard wide of the left post. An audible groan was heard in the stands, and Mayer could do nothing but bury his head in his hands.
Redemption came in a funny way just eight minutes later. Mayer was clean through on goal and beat the keeper with a high shot. But his effort rang off the crossbar and back into play. Fortunately, it found graduate student Linus Fallberg who volleyed home the rebound into the empty net to give UNH the lead.
The goal should have been enough to get UNH across the line. Yale looked to have hedged their bets on a goalless draw. The Bulldogs ran a five back formation and made most of their attacks on the counter. With a one-goal lead and defense like UNH has had all season, a win felt almost certain.
Just as UNH’s attack was off their game, so were the UNH defenders. Despite some chances here and there, it seemed as if Yale wasn’t going to find the equalizer with time ticking down. But in the 87th minute, disaster struck the UNH backline. An out-swinging cross was misread by junior Rory O’Driscoll and graduate student Bridger Hansen. The ball cleared their heads and fell to Yale’s top scorer junior Paolo Carroll who was quicker than grad student Sam Henneberg, who lunged in a last-ditch bid to clear the ball. Carroll half-volleyed in the equalizer, and shock and anguish took over the Wildcats’ faces as Yale celebrated.
Pinkham gave a blunt assessment of the goal.
“I think we were quite complacent letting Yale have the ball and letting them dictate the play in the later stages of the second half,” said Pinkham. “It wasn’t good enough of a group effort to keep the ball and defend as a unit. We knew coming into the game that their most dangerous opportunities would come from crosses into their two huge forwards. We let them do what they’re good at, and we were punished for it.”
O’Driscoll could have been the hero in the 90th minute but was just inches wide of the top corner and his fourth game-winner of the season.
In overtime, it was Yale who had the more dangerous chances at goal. Junior UNH keeper Jassem Koleilat made a tremendous foot save to keep UNH from defeat. The final whistle looked to have protected UNH from a loss rather than kept them from a win.
The ‘Cats can’t let themselves be discouraged, though. They face Vermont this Saturday and then have three more conference games before postseason action begins. Now more than ever, every matchup is a must-win for Pinkham and his teammates.
The senior left-back believes this game was an aberration.
“I think back-to-back games in a short period of time obviously didn’t help our case. We got back from our road trip at Binghamton at 4 a.m. and had one day to rest and prepare for Yale at the same time. Just a blip, we’ll be back on target next game,” said Pinkham. “For me, it’s an important moment in our season. We’ve been able to get through every game with a win thus far, maybe turning a blind eye to some of our faults at times. This gives us a great opportunity to open our eyes, learn from our mistakes, and ultimately be best prepared for Vermont to come this Saturday and respond in a huge way.”
New Hampshire will welcome the Catamounts into Wildcat Stadium on Saturday night at 7 p.m. for a rematch of the spring’s America East Championship Game.
Photo courtesy of China Wong