To say a lot was on the line Saturday would have been an understatement. It was a shot for the Yale seniors to leave their final mark on the field that has become their second home the past four years. It was the stage for an upstart Bulldog program to reclaim its spot among the Ivy elite. It was a chance for the Elis to keep their postseason hopes alive.
With all of this on their shoulders, the No. 25 Bulldogs (9-3-4, 4-1-1 Ivy) upset No. 18 Brown (10-4-1, 5-1), 2-1, handing the previously undefeated Bears their first Ivy loss of the season. With the win, Yale is still alive in the Ivy race, moving within two points of Brown.
“My pre-game focus was to ask [the team] to display a high level of strength in terms of mind, body and spirit,” Yale head coach Brain Tompkins said. “Brown really brought out the best in us, our character, courage and determination.”
Brown came into the game showcasing the best offense in the Ivy League, but it was the Bulldogs who came out of the gates attacking aggressively. Just seven minutes into the game, defender Ryan Morrissey ’06, off a perfect cross from fellow back Jordan Rieger ’07, slipped the ball past Brown keeper David Semeza for an early 1-0 lead.
Brown silenced the Yale crowd ten minutes later with the equalizer. Andrew Daniels handled a well-placed ball from Brian Joyce and rifled a shot past Erik Geiger ’08. But the Bulldogs were not fazed. Instead, they stayed patient, waiting for the opportune time to reclaim the lead.
That opportunity came late in the first half when defender Alex Guzinski ’09 sent a long ball to a streaking Liam Leonard ’09. The Bears overcommitted on the offensive end, which enabled Leonard to break away easily from the pack. The freshman sensation handled the ball, took two dribbles and kicked it right past Semeza. The excited Bulldogs raced off the field at the half, pumping their fists to the sounds of an approving crowd.
Tompkins said the early goals gave the Bulldogs all the momentum they would need to stave off a Bears comeback.
“We’ve been having problems finishing on scoring chances,” he said. “So to get those early goals really lifted our spirits.”
After flashing their offensive talents in the first half, the Bulldogs relied on sheer will and desire to keep it a 2-1 game throughout the second half. Rather than playing tentatively to protect the lead, the Bulldogs were relentless in setting up scoring chances of their own. Geiger said these aggressive counterattacks proved to be the best defensive scheme.
“When you go against a team like Brown, it’s easy to sit back and be intimidated,” Geiger said. “We just wanted to leave it out on the field for the seniors and keep control of the game.”
The first-place Bears would not go away quietly, controlling the majority of possession late in the second half and keeping the pressure on the Bulldogs’ defense. But as the case has been all year long, the Eli backfield kept its composure and simply would not let the ball get by. The tandem of Rieger and Jake Miller ’07 patrolled the Yale zone and won ball after ball, which allowed Geiger to go through the entire game without having to make a save.
Geiger, who was nursing a minor ankle injury throughout the week, said it would have taken a broken leg to keep him out of this showdown. It was this collective desire that engineered the upset effort.
“We were dead tired and they kept coming at us, but we just refused to lose,” Geiger said. “The defense was absolutely amazing tonight. We just had no doubt that we were not going to give up another goal.”
After Saturday’s win, players and fans might be expected to begin to begin mapping out conditions necessary for Yale to win the Ivies.
But tonight was not about making calculations. It was about the Bulldogs treating their loyal fans to an upset of a first-place team in the home finale. It was about providing the exclamation point on a season that has seen the Yale soccer program make a complete turnaround from a disappointing campaign last year. But mostly, it was about the seniors leaving the Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium triumphantly one last time in perhaps the biggest game of their careers.
“There’s no better way to go out,” Morrissey said. “I know Harvard is our rival, but Brown has been giving us problems since I’ve been here. So it’s great just to give our fans this win.”
To understand the importance of the senior class, one need look no further than Yale’s post-game celebration at midfield. The Eli coaching staff, players and alumni formed a large circle around the seniors, acknowledging their special place in the Yale soccer family.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve created a circle inside Yale soccer,” Tompkins said. “So it’s a tradition at the end of every final home game to recreate this circle with the seniors in the middle. It symbolizes that while [the seniors’] role in the circle may change, they are still going to be an important part of this team.”
But the season is not quite over. While it will take a Brown-Dartmouth tie as well as a final Yale win for the Elis to nab a piece of the Ivy title pie, Morrissey said the Bulldogs are not worrying about that particular.
“It’s pretty easy to focus with just one game left,” he said. “We just got to go and beat the hell out of Princeton [next week] and let the rest fall into place.”