AMHERST, MA — A second chance in as many years is on the cards for the Ephs to take home the NESCAC championship trophy in men's soccer tomorrow on the campus of their arch-rival, Amherst College.
Today, the Ephs held strong after a first-half goal from sophomore Mohammed Rashid, fresh off earning NESCAC player-of-the-week honors for his brace against Middlebury last week in the NESCAC quarterfinals. Rashid's goal was bolstered by another from junior midfielder Matt Muralles late in the game, which Rashid himself assisted, securing the Ephs' place in the NESCAC championship game in spite of an even later goal from Wesleyan.
The 2-1 victory over the Cardinals lifted the Ephs' record to 11-5-0 on the season and dropped the Cardinals to 9-6-1.
Both teams started off slow in the first half, but the Ephs appeared to be the more threatening of the two sides as the half developed.
Just before the fifteen-minute mark, freshman Malcolm Moutenot blazed down the left wing as he received a pass from Rashid in the midfield. Moutenot then showed an incredible bit of skill, chipping a defender who was sliding in to make a tackle, before making another defender look foolish by nutmegging him. Moutenot then sent in a dangerous looking ball across the face of the goal that was only just cleared in time before reaching the lurking Rashid at the back post.
The Cardinals created a chance of their own in the 26th minute when sophomore Brandon Sousa lobbed a long ball from the right midfield up to the left corner of the Ephs' penalty area, where fellow sophomore Chris Kafina was waiting to collect the ball. Kafina then drove inside and rocketed a shot toward goal, but Eph sophomore Geoff Danilack was there to block the shot away from senior keeper Peter Morrell's goal.
Rashid's goal came just under nine minutes later after the Ephs' had just subbed on sophomore striker Jonathan Westling. Westling drove toward the Cardinals defense and showed incredible strength to fight off sophomore defender Ben Toulotte on the right side of the penalty area. Westling then made a nice lay-off to Rashid who flew by the defense and slotted a gorgeous shot under the right arm of junior keeper Emmett McConnell to break the deadlock.
The rest of the first half was relatively innocuous until the dying seconds when freshman Cardinal Charlie Gruner gathered a loose ball in his own defensive-third and drove all the way through the heart of the midfield toward the defense. Before the defense could close Gruner down, Gruner rocketed a shot from about thirty yards out that only just rose over Morrell's crossbar.
The Ephs went into half-time with a well-deserved 1-0 lead and came out in the second half looking dangerous, as a pair of chances were created in the opening eight minutes.
First, senior Matt Kastner played a ball down to Muralles, whose one-touch through ball down the right side fell perfectly in the path of Moutenot who streaked down the sideline and swung a cross in that looked dangerous but managed to avoid any Eph heads or boots.
Only moments later junior Andres Burbank-Crump sent a dangerous free-kick into the box from the right side of the midfield that only just eluded the head of Danilack at the back-post that surely would doubled the Ephs' lead.
The game quieted down from there but sprang back into life in the 68th minute, once again after the substitution of Westling onto the field.
Westling possessed the ball just outside the Cardinal penalty area and was being closed down by a pair of defenders, but he somehow managed to slip an inch-perfect pass between the two defenders to Rashid who had just made a knifing run through the left side of the Cardinal back-line. The chance looked identical to Rashid's goal in the first half, but McConnell must have learned his lesson well, as he got down quickly to keep Rashid's low shot from causing a bulge in the back of his net.
Seemingly inspired by McConnell's save, the Cardinal attack seemed to come alive, creating many more opportunities.
The Cardinals seemed to have equalized through junior Omar Bravo in the 77th minute, but they were denied by the heroics of Morrell. Freshman Hans Erickson drove up the center of the field and then carved apart the back-line of the Ephs with a mouth-watering pass to the left side of the penalty area to the knifing Bravo. Bravo took a touch to settle the ball and then fired a low ball toward the opposite corner of the net that forced Morrell to make an incredible kick-save with his left foot that was the lone reason that the Ephs remained a goal up.
The clearance following Morrell's save fell fortuitously to Rashid, who found himself all alone behind the Cardinal defense. Rashid drove into the Cardinal penalty area on the right side and launched a shot toward the left corner of the goal, but McConnell came up once again with a beautiful diving save to keep the Cardinals within striking distance.
Five minutes later, the Ephs found the back of the net for the second time of the day, this time through Muralles. The goal came after a beautiful exchange of passes between Muralles and Rashid down the left wing. First, Rashid played a give-and-go with Muralles, whose return pass was flicked over the head of a Cardinal midfielder right back into the path or Rashid. Rashid then raced all the way down the sideline and acted as if he were going to cut into the box, faking out his defender and, instead, laying off the ball to Murallas who had followed him down the sideline. Murallas wasted no time smashing a ball past McConnell to double the Ephs' lead.
It seemed as if the game had been wrapped up, but no one told the Cardinals that because it took them less than two minutes to cut the deficit in half.
It was the man who looked dangerous for them all day, Sousa, who did the dirty work after receiving a pass from junior Daniel Issroff on the left side of the penalty area. Sousa then curled a beautiful right-footed shot around the diving Morrell and into the upper-right corner of the goal.
The Ephs remained cool, calm, and collected in spite of the quick response from the Cardinals and saw out the rest of the game thanks to several headed clearances by Danilack in the dying moments.
After the game, Eph head coach Mike Russo praised his team's attack today: "The fact that we broke down a rock-solid defense like Wesleyan is very satisfying. This is a team that had just pitched four shutouts in their last four games, and the fact that we were able to score two goals on them and create several other great scoring opportunities is fantastic. Their keeper had a great performance today and their defense doesn't allow you much, so I am very happy."
The Ephs outshot the Cardinals by a margin of 13 to 11, with 6 shots on goal to the Cardinals' 4. The Ephs had 5 corners to the 2 of the Cardinals, and Morrell made 3 saves to McConnell's 4.
The Ephs will play the winner of Amherst and Bowdoin tomorrow at noon in the NESCAC championship finals.