Men’s soccer wins NCAA regional games, advances in post-season
MIDDLEBURY — The host Middlebury College men’s soccer team on Sunday turned aside a challenge from Johns Hopkins in an NCAA regional final, 2-1, to advance to a sectional this weekend hosted by NESCAC rival Amherst.
The 14-1-4 Panthers on Saturday will take on Cortland State (17-2-2) at 1:30 p.m., after Amherst (15-2-3), the NESCAC playoff champion, faces Occidental (15-3-3) at 11 a.m.
The winners will square off at 1 p.m. on Sunday in hopes of advancing to the tournament’s final four in Salem, Va, on Dec. 1 and 3. Of those three teams, the Panthers have played only Amherst this fall: The teams tied in Middlebury, 1-1, on Sept. 9.
On this past Sunday, the Panthers found themselves in the unusual position of coming up on the short end of time of possession against a team with talented midfielders and a patient approach, plus a dash of grit. The visiting Jays moved the ball crisply and earned modest advantages in shots (13-11) and corner kicks (4-3).
But Hopkins didn’t finish as well as the Panthers, and Middlebury took a 2-0 lead in the first half before holding off the Jays in the final 45 minutes. Senior forward Jordan Saint-Louis set up both goals, one scored by forward Tyler Payne on a counterattack, and the other on a header by midfielder Kyle Nillson on a corner kick.
Middlebury Coach Alex Elias said it was a different kind of game than the Panthers are used to playing, and they did a good job of being disciplined in maintaining their defensive positioning to match Hopkins’s deliberate approach.
“We’re used to having the ball more than a lot of our opponents, maybe all of our opponents,” Elias said. “Sometimes it’s hard to control a game without the ball. But sometimes that’s what you have to do when you’re up against a team that wants the ball and is good at possession.”
Elias said he had expected that approach from the Jays, but adding he didn’t expect it to be as effective as it proved to be. But he and his staff also expected the Panthers to have advantages, and their two goals proved them to be correct.
“You can win the game in different ways,” Elias said. “In set pieces we felt we could be better, which we were. And we felt we could be good in transition, which we were.”
The Jays had a couple chances before Middlebury struck: Panther goalie Ryan Grady came out to beat Griffin Meyer to a through ball, Will Sangpachatanaruk shot wide, and 16 minutes in Grady had to punch away a hard left-footed shot from Max Edelstein from the left side.
The Panthers began to gain traction as the half wore on, and in the 33rd minute Saint-Louis ripped a 30-yard free kick that curled wide right.
The Panthers broke through in the 37th minute. Harper Nicholl denied a Hopkins advance and cleared quickly to Eujin Chae, who sent Saint-Louis down the left side. Saint-Louis carried almost to the endline and sent a low cross to Payne, about five yards out from the goalmouth. Payne took a touch and left-footed the ball into the lower right corner.
The Panthers kept coming, and Nicholl fired just high in the 39th minute. The Panthers won a corner five minutes later, and from the left side Saint-Louis lashed a bullet to the goalfront, where Nillson, a few yards in from the near post just off the goal line, rose and pounded a header high into the net to make it 2-0.
As the second half opened the same tandem almost connected again, with Saint-Louis serving left to right, but Jay goalie Drew Valsamedis (two saves) jumped up and over to deny Nillson’s bid for the upper corner.
Hopkins began to press. Nicholl shut down one dangerous through ball, and Meyer shot wide 13 minutes in.
In the half’s 21st minute, Meyer halved the Middlebury lead, pouncing on a deflected shot near the penalty stripe and poking the ball into the bottom right corner.
Hopkins launched six shots in the final 20 minutes. Soon after the goal, Ian Whamond hit the crossbar with a left-footed effort from just outside the box.
With just under eight minutes to go, Edelstein ripped a shot at the bottom right corner, but Grady, who finished with four saves, dove to knock the bid just wide.
The Panthers managed six shots in the second half, but failed to capitalize. Elias would have liked to see a bit more assertion, but credited the Jays.
“We always want to attack leads. That’s easier in theory than in practice sometimes when you’re playing a really good team that likes to control the ball,” he said. “We had a lot of opportunities to get a third (goal) that we didn’t get, and we could have really put them on the ropes.”
The bottom line is the Panthers are moving forward.
“They’re just thrilled to have another week together, training and playing and being with the group,” Elias said. “So that was our goal coming in: Let’s not let this be the last day with this team. I’m so proud of them.”
The Panthers on Saturday dominated the second half in ousting Western New England, 3-0.
The Panthers outshot the 6-7-7 Golden Bears, 20-8, but the shot margin was only 7-6 in a mostly even first half from which Middlebury emerged with a 1-0 lead. But Grady had to make a challenging save, and WNE at times pressured the Panther back line and midfielders.
Middlebury’s halftime talk and a formation adjustment resulted in a 13-2 edge in shots in the second half, and two more goals, a total that could have been higher.
Elias said the team’s halftime discussion included a pep talk and a switch to five midfielders to give the team more midfield presence.
“It (the talk) always includes higher work rate, more responsibility, pride in defending. But credit to Western New England,” Elias said. “They gave us a few issues back in the first half. And we adjusted system-wide to match up a little better in the middle of the park, and the guys really took to it.”
Early on, the Golden Bears earned a corner kick in game’s third minute. Panther Ben Powers headed away both the initial serve and a second ball sent back into the box.
In the 10th minute WNE’s Roger Leyland broke in alone and fired a 15-yard blast to Grady’s right, but Grady kicked it wide.
Shortly afterward Panther Will Sawin’s shot from the left side drifted wide of the right post. The Panthers began to find their footing, and in the 16th minute Gavin Randolph flicked a Nilsson serve from the right off the left post.
The Panthers broke through in the 27th minute. Saint-Louis controlled a clear at midfield and raced down the right side past two defenders into the box’s top right corner. He took a touch toward the middle and ripped a left-footed shot past WNE goalie Braylon Casinghino into the far corner.
WNE nearly equalized two minutes later in a scramble, but Mike Milazzo’s header from six yards away ticked off the right post. WNE earned two corner kicks after that, but the Panthers held firm.
Then came the second half, and Middlebury took charge: 2:40 into the half Nicholl hit a well-timed through ball to Saint-Louis near midfield. He burst past the defense and knocked a left-footed strike into the bottom left corner to make it 2-0.
Panther Colin Dugan rang a post before Payne made it 3-0 on a clever feed from Dugan, who slipped the ball between two defenders to his teammate, who rolled the ball past Casinghino from close range as the two collided. Casinghino was injured on the play and finished with two saves.
WNE backup goalie Ryan Suprin made five stops the rest of the way, including a beauty on a Nicholl blast. On a late corner kick Suprin denied a Dugan bid and a point-blank Alem Muris Hadzic effort on the rebound. At the other end, Grady finished with just the one key stop early on.
“Overall, I’m proud,” Elias said. “A clean sheet, and great work by Grady and the back three and back four.”
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