Another year, another heartbreaking finish for the Lafayette men’s soccer team.
An undefeated spring season came to a crashing halt in Saturday’s Patriot League championship game, as the Leopards lost their second consecutive title match after dropping a 1-0 result to Lehigh in fall 2019.
This time, Lafayette fought to double-overtime before an opportunistic American team netted the game-winner in the 102nd minute. The final score was 2-1.
“Winning isn’t easy, I tell the guys that all the time,” said head coach Dennis Bohn. “If winning was easy, then everybody would do it. I’m proud of the fact that we went 7-1 and hosted two playoff games and won the regular season championship…but ultimately we didn’t get our final goal.”
Lafayette was subsequently snubbed on Monday for the NCAA men’s tournament despite being ranked No. 24 in the United Soccer Coaches Poll for the first time in 25 years. The team also ranks fourth in the nation in rating percentage index (RPI), which accounts for teams’ winning percentage, strength of schedule and opponent strength of schedule.
Not being selected only added insult to injury for the Leopards.
“To be [high] in RPI from the computer rankings and not get in was another punch in the gut a little bit,” Bohn said. “But when you play in the Patriot League, sometimes in sports, you have to take care of business and you can’t rely on the selection committee to do it for you.”
For much of Saturday’s title game, the Leopards looked like the force they were during the regular season: thriving on ball control and stout defense while pounding the opposing goaltender with shots. Lafayette nearly scored just two minutes into the game, but a header by sophomore midfielder David Mizrahi was turned aside by a diving save from the American keeper.
The Maroon and White recorded the first five shots in the game and the first four corner kicks, controlling the opening 20 minutes of action. But it was American who would find the back of the net first.
“I think it was unfortunate we didn’t score early,” Bohn said. “I thought the first 10-15 minutes we dominated and then actually gave up the first goal.”
Just like in their semifinal matchup, American made the most of their scoring chances. The Eagles tallied three goals on four shots on net against Loyola, and scored on their first shot in the championship game. American striker David Coly, who led the league in goals along with Lafayette sophomore forward Hale Lombard, scored on a header off a corner kick in the 23rd minute.
“[Coly’s] a guy who doesn’t need many looks and unfortunately for us he got a couple and made the most of it,” Bohn said. “That’s what really good players do, so kudos to him.”
It didn’t take long for the Maroon and White to strike back. Just over six minutes later, junior midfielder Will Echeverria sent a cross into the box and a leaping Lombard headed the ball into the back of the net. The players mobbed Lombard as he ran up the sidelines, with the momentum firmly back in the Leopards’ favor.
The two teams traded fouls and managed just one more shot combined as halftime arrived with the score knotted at 1-1. Lafayette held a 7-2 advantage in shots and a 5-1 edge in corner kicks in the game’s opening half, nearly scoring on another header from Mizrahi which clanked off the crossbar.
“I was disappointed to go into halftime 1-1,” Bohn said. “I thought we had the better play.”
The beginning of the second half was evenly matched, as both teams earned several corner kicks and had a shot apiece. The turning point of the game came midway through the half on a flurry of yellow cards.
Mizrahi received a yellow card for knocking over one of the Eagles’ players on a fast break, which Bohn explained was a “tactical foul” that prevented the other team from getting a breakaway or sustaining their attack. But just 76 seconds later, Mizrahi picked up a second yellow card on a similar play that appeared to be more accidental contact.
“I don’t think the second [yellow card] was as much of a counter-attack situation for them,” Bohn said. “I thought we were pretty well organized with numbers behind the ball, I don’t think the tackle was as violent or aggressive as the first one.”
Mizrahi was thrown out of the game as two yellows turn into a red card, which disqualifies a player from continuing and prevents a team from replacing them. The Leopards were forced to play a man down for the remainder of the game. Bohn could be heard yelling from across the field that the call was inconsistent, earning him a yellow card on the bench.
“Knowing that was going to be a red card and have a huge effect on the game, I was just disappointed with the decision,” Bohn said.
Lafayette continued to play a physical, high-energy style despite being down a man, and prevented American from attempting any more shots in the half. Regulation time ended with the score still tied at one, and the teams headed into a sudden death “golden goal” overtime frame.
The Leopards had scoring chances in the first overtime but were forced to play a more conservative defensive strategy while down a man.
“It’s a difficult situation, it’s really a situation where teams have to show a lot of fitness and resolve, and I thought we did that,” Bohn said. “You just have to set up a little deeper defensively…so there were some tactical adjustments that I thought we needed to make, but our guys executed it really well and gave us at least a chance to get it to double overtime.”
“I was hoping to get to penalty kicks,” Bohn added.
The Leopards’ dreams of a title were dashed just a minute into the second overtime period. Coly kept the ball in bounds in the penalty area and an American attacker was able to hit it home after the initial attempt was blocked. The Eagles stormed the field in jubilant fashion as the Leopards laid dazed on the grass.
“I thought the guys showed a lot of character and a lot of sacrifice and guts to play those 25 minutes down a man,” Bohn said.
While the Leopards won’t be competing for an NCAA title when the tournament starts next week, the program will field a nearly identical team when the normal fall season resumes in August. Only senior defender Kyle Robbins will graduate this spring, leaving key contributors Andrew Venezia and Martin Ssessanga in the potent starting lineup. The two are taking advantage of the NCAA giving athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, allowing them another shot at Patriot League glory.
That fact isn’t lost on the players, either.
“This year, our team took a huge step,” Ssessanga said. “For the first time ever, we went into the finals pretty confident.”
“We’ve really changed the program,” he added. “It’s been a proactive, mindful change in approach to the whole game of soccer. It’s more like a reboot, that’s what I would call it.”