WILDCATS 4, RETRIEVERS 0

DURHAM, N.H. — On a crisp November night, the playoffs began for the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (16-0-2, 7-0-1). After a first-round bye, UNH hosted the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers (8-8-3, 3-4-1) in the America East (AE) semifinals. With a trip to their fourth straight America East Championship on the line, the ‘Cats played some of their best soccer on the season. UNH was fluid and dangerous all night and ensured that the only thing the Retrievers brought home was 4-0 thrashing.  

The playoffs brought more pageantry to Wildcat Stadium than men’s soccer is used to. Cheerleaders, mascots and fans all joined in to create a buzz around the stadium. The anticipation was palpable before kickoff, and the crowd erupted once play began. The Wildcats seemed to feed off the energy and came out with teeth bared. The teeth drew blood in just under three and a half minutes.  

Fifth-year midfielder Johann von Knebel had his best game of the season, tallying one goal and two assists. In the fourth minute, he surged forward with the rest of the UNH attackers and was nearly taken off the ball by his own teammate before firing a low shot that was blocked. He secured his own rebound, however, and wiggled into open space within the 18-yard box. From there, it was right foot to right corner, and von Knebel slashed in the opening goal of New Hampshire’s playoff run.  

Von Knebel was the linchpin for the second goal as well. Looking for his second netfinder of the night, von Knebel managed a somewhat awkward shot toward the right corner. The Retrievers keeper seemed slow to react, but we’ll never know if he would have saved von Knebel’s shot. Fifth-year striker Paul Mayer took the poacher’s chance and intercepted his teammate’s shot. Mayer fired the ball back across the goal to the left, where UMBC was utterly helpless. UMBC knew they needed to keep this game close if they wanted any chance of a comeback. The second goal etched the faces of the Retrievers with pain as they knew their season was slipping away.  

It only went from bad to worse for the visitors’ defense in the second half. UMBC failed to clear a cross from sophomore Liam Bennett before the ball ricocheted off the chest of a defender and found the foot of junior Rory O’Driscoll. The Minneapolis native leaned back and delivered an acrobatic finish to the top right corner that looped up and over the outstretched glove of the keeper. It was a lovely finish for a goal whose build-up was filled with ugly defending.  

Von Knebel got his second assist of the night in the 64th minute with the help of graduate student Linus Fallberg. Von Knebel made a sumptuous move to break through the Retrievers’ defense and into the open field. Fallberg made the delayed run, and von Knebel picked him out with a sweet cross. Fallberg then took the ball inside on his right foot and after two dribbles to the inside, fired a shot back across his body into the bottom left corner. It was a spectacular goal and one that showed the class of this Wildcats team.  

Four was plenty of cushion for the UNH defense that only allowed two shots on net all night. It was a complete team performance and one of the best the ‘Cats have had all year against quality opposition.  

The opponent will be even more formidable Sunday afternoon for the America East Championship. The Vermont Catamounts (12-4-2, 6-1-1) prowl into Durham for a rematch between the two apex predators of the America East. Vermont was one of two teams who held UNH to a draw this season. The regular-season matchup was hotly contested, with tempers flaring and bad blood at the boiling point. Several UNH players said they were hoping they would see Vermont again. They’ll get their wish Sunday at 2 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.   

Photo courtesy of China Wong