“Never say die” might just have to be the new slogan for the men’s soccer team, who silenced nationally top-seeded Amherst on the road to the semi-finals of the NESCAC tournament. An inconsistent Cardinals’ team has certainly had a season of highs and lows, winning at Haverford College (who recently knocked off a top-ranked team of their own in a victory over Franklin and Marshall), but finishing the regular season with five straight losses. Nevertheless, the Cardinals have bettered their 2014 postseason finish, advancing one round further than in last year’s playoffs.
The Cardinals finished the year at 7-7-1 (3-6-1 NESCAC) and were the eighth and final seed in the tournament. Thus, they squared off against a heavily favorited Amherst side ranked first in DIII, and who finished the year undefeated at 14-0-1 (9-0-1 NESCAC).
What’s more, just one week prior to the matchup, the Lord Jeffs handed Head Coach Geoff Wheeler the worst loss of his 17-year tenure in a 5-0 drubbing at Amherst’s homecoming. The Cardinals side that took the field last Saturday, however, asserted that the lopsided result was just an anomaly. Wesleyan was difficult to break down, sharp in possession, and free-flowing in attack. The match showed traces of the Cardinals’ 2014 historic homecoming victory over Amherst, where Wesleyan did not let the Lord Jeffs’ physical play make the game slow and ugly, qualities that always benefit Amherst’s exceptionally large players and have characterized its recent dominance in NESCAC men’s soccer.
Amherst is a not a team that can be broken down with direct play and physicality; they are a team, however, that can be broken down with quick, precise, and disciplined team play. Their attack, on the other hand, thrives not in open play, but instead in set-piece situations, where they can send their big bodies up to challenge for aerial balls in the attacking third.
The Cardinals did well both to stifle this kind of attack and to counter with precise, effective, and forward-thinking possession. Although they managed just two shot attempts to Amherst’s seven, they were able to frustrate Amherst by breaking their pressure.
A first half with few clear attempts for either side opened up quickly in the second half. Soon after Junior Danny Rubenstein’s crunching challenge on Amherst’s top scorer Nico Pascual-Leone, Charlie Gruner ’17 won a 50th minute penalty kick. Amherst’s senior goalkeeper, Thomas Bull, guessed incorrectly, diving to his right, but made an excellent recovery, saving Gruner’s PK, which was hit hard, low, and just left of center, with his trailing foot.
The tension grew on Amherst’s home ground, as a heightened sense that Wesleyan could break the deadlock pervaded the spectacle. Charlie Livingstone ’18 and Brandon Sousa ’16 registered shots on target, but Bull still thwarted the attempts with relative ease.
Amherst came roaring right back with Greg Singer’s 64th minute strike off the post that teased the Amherst faithful. Seven minutes later, however, newcomer Komar Martinez-Paiz ’19 would step up to the plate to score the match’s only goal.
Sousa’s service from the right flank deflected and found an open Martinez-Paiz whose quick control and cut set up a right-footed shot, which he buried in the top left corner. Cardinal fans got a glimpse of the future, as one of the team’s young attacking starlets showed that he has ice running through his veins.
Amherst relentlessly fought back for the remaining 20 minutes, but great saves from goalkeeper Jonas Katkavich ’17 and a heroic goal-line save from Adam Cowie-Haskell ’18 saw the Cardinals to victory.
The joy of victory, however, will quickly be replaced by the anticipation of yet another NESCAC grudge match. The Cardinals will face off in a semi-final matchup against Middlebury on the road. The Cardinals will face a Panthers side that has beaten them three times on the bounce, twice in the in the regular season and once in last season’s NESCAC quarterfinal. On top of that, this looks to be one of the stronger sides in recent memory for Middlebury; the boys from Vermont finished second in the NESCAC regular season (13-2-1, 7-2-1 NESCAC) and demolished Trinity 5-0 in their NESCAC quarterfinal matchup.
In spite of the difficulty of the task, this Wesleyan team has proved capable of stepping up on big occasions this season, particularly against Haverford and Amherst. In both games Wesleyan was certainly the underdog, but nonetheless exhibited some heroics and a relentless unity that saw the team to victory. In recent matchups with Middlebury, Wesleyan has controlled the tempo for the majority of the time and has seen plenty of chances go begging.
Despite those failures, the Cardinals will, more than in each of the past three matchups with Middlebury, feel a genuine chip on their shoulders going into Saturday’s match. Following a torrid end to the regular season, the squad could be considered the wounded animal of the NESCAC. They were nearly left out of the tournament altogether and are fighting to stay. They may now be the most dangerous team to meet after Saturday’s statement win against previously unbeaten Amherst, and are a Cinderella story in the making.
Regardless, the stars are certainly aligning for a cracker of a matchup this weekend, and the Cardinals will feel they have a real chance to reach their first NESCAC final since the program’s last NESCAC championship in 2005. Bowdoin and Connecticut College square off in the other semifinal, and the winners will meet in the final on Sunday at Middlebury.