Winless in its first two games against Little Three rivals Williams and Amherst, the men’s soccer team will have to beat at least one of those teams to win the NESCAC title this year.
The second-seeded Cardinals take on the third-seeded Ephs this Saturday, Nov. 9 in Amherst, Mass. for the second time this year. Williams caught Wesleyan off its game the first time around, dealing the Cards a 2-0 home loss on Saturday, Oct. 12.
In that game, Eph striker Mohammed Rashid scored a goal with one of his seven shots on Wesleyan keeper Emmett McConnell ’15. That game was the only time McConnell allowed multiple goals this year against a NESCAC opponent.
After being named the NESCAC Rookie of the Year last season, Rashid slumped for much of this year, scoring no goals in the regular season other than the one against Wes. He appears to be heating up again, though, having scored two of Williams’ three goals in the opening round game against Middlebury, a 3-2 home victory. He also assisted the Ephs’ lone goal last Wednesday in a loss to Hamilton.
Rashid and the rest of his Williams attack will be going up against a rock- solid Wesleyan defense, which has gone four and a half games since the last goal it allowed, over 437 minutes of game play ago.
Cardinal captain Danny Issroff ’15 has been impressed with the overall play of the team in preventing goals recently.
“We’ve really tightened up defensively over the past few weeks,” he said. “There was a point in the season when we were conceding very preventable goals, and we’ve managed to put a stop to that. I think our shape has been a lot better, and we’ve been better organized and tougher to break down, not just as a back four but as an entire unit.”
The Cardinals are 8-3 in the NESCAC this year, and each of their last eight wins came in 1-0 games, a testament to their ability to stop the other team and do what it takes to win.
It’s also hard to talk about the stifling defense without talking about the man behind the back four, McConnell. In his first year starting in net, McConnell has racked up seven shutouts and a Player of the Week award, while ranking first in the league in save percentage and second in the league in goals against average.
“Emmett’s been tremendous for us throughout the season, and every game you can see his confidence growing,” Issroff said of his fellow junior. “Obviously, going into the season the goalkeeping position was a bit of a worry for us, but Emmett has turned that into one of our major strengths. I would say the key for him has really been just getting game experience and confidence, like I said. It makes a huge difference having such a solid goalkeeper.”
McConnell has also been clutch when it has come to penalty kicks this year, which is how playoff games are decided if the game-winner isn’t netted during the first two overtime periods. Earlier this season, McConnell commented on how he’s been able to stop both PKs taken against him.
“One of the bigger reasons behind my success with penalties is confidence,” McConnell said. “Other than that, I try to read where they might think of going. Most people’s eyes give away which side they’re shooting. Their hips are the last tell for most shooters. They commit to their side early.”
The Cards also have been successful in overtime play this year, having not allowed a golden goal so far this year, while winning three games of their own in extra time.
Issroff isn’t concerned with the results of the previous Williams game this year, focusing instead on the quality of play in the contest.
“I thought the first time we played Williams we actually did a decent enough job creating chances,” he said. “We played some good football, and were able to break them down a few times, but it’s just a matter of finishing the chances. I would expect this game to be tighter than the first, given that it’s the NESCAC semifinals, so capitalizing on our opportunities when we do get them is going to be crucial.”
Looking past that game against Williams, the teams were very evenly matched this year. The teams were set to finish in a tie for second place before the Ephs fell in their last match of the year to Hamilton, who won just two games against playoff teams this year (oddly enough, the other was against Wesleyan).
All that is to say that this game will be determined largely by intangibles, Issroff predicted.
“I’d say one thing that we have going for us is that we’re in really good form at the moment,” he said. “We seem to be hitting our stride at the right time.”
Naturally, the Belichickian instinct is to not look past the opening round game against Williams, but it’s hard to avoid seeing a potential matchup against Amherst on the horizon.
Amherst matches up against Bowdoin on Saturday, who it defeated 3-0 earlier this year. The Polar Bears haven’t beaten Amherst since 2008.
If Amherst and Wesleyan both win, the Cardinals will have a tall task in trying to defeat the Jeffs. Amherst is riding a 35-game unbeaten streak spanning two seasons and is currently ranked second in the nation. The Birds lost 1-0 at Amherst’s Homecoming earlier this year. Issroff, though, is undaunted by the potential task.
“I thought we were unlucky to lose to Amherst the first time around,” Issroff said. “We probably deserved a draw. I know they haven’t lost in a very long time, but to be honest I don’t think they’re invincible. With them it’s always a matter of making sure that they’re playing our game and not the other way around. They’re very good at certain things, but weak in other areas, and if you can make it more of a technical battle than a physical one, you can have some success against them.”
But before the chance to potentially take down Amherst, Wesleyan must prove itself against the Eph squad, as the Birds aspire for their first ever three-game postseason win streak over Williams in the 89th year of their soccer rivalry.