Men’s soccer leaves on season’s last road trip

With the door closing on a mediocre season for the men’s soccer team, the season’s final Ivy League road trip offers a chance to go out with a bang.

In the penultimate match of 2007, Yale (3-7-5, 1-2-2 Ivy) will head down to Princeton, N.J., to take on the Tigers (5-8-2, 3-2-0) in its third and last conference contest outside the Elm City. When the result of Saturday’s football game against Princeton is almost 24 hours old, the Elis will line up across from the Tigers at 4 p.m. Sunday.

A season that began with high hopes for an inexperienced squad bolstered by excellent upperclassmen leadership seems to have become a building year for the Bulldogs. The squad lingers near the cellar of the Ancient Eight standings but had a string of successes in the middle of the season and a key conference victory against Columbia that point to a huge improvement since an opening four-game skid in September.

“We improved our speed of play and adjusted pretty well to the pace of the game at the college level,” midfielder Eric Meyer ’11 said of the freshman class. “We’ve gained a lot more confidence, and we feel like we can contribute and make a difference on the field.”

The Elis can point to a narrow 2-1 defeat against No. 1 UConn and a draw with No. 8 Boston College amidst a slew of tied games as proof of the experience they gained in 2007.

But the Bulldogs are 1-1 on the road against Ancient Eight opponents and recorded a victory in just one of their past seven matchups. Yale heads to Princeton with two less-than-satisfactory losses in the conference, but midfielder Alex Afsahi ’09 said the team still has the drive to boost those numbers.

“We feel we can beat Princeton and we should beat Princeton,” he said. “Our mental attitude is that this is a game that we can win for sure. It’s an added bonus that it’s an away game because it will require a bit more focus and attention than a normal game.”

The Tigers currently share third place in the Ivy standings with No. 15 Harvard and boast a tough back line and forward Kyle McHugh — the Ivy League’s fifth best scorer — who has notched seven goals. After a season-opening six-game slide, Princeton has also been on a hot streak for the past few games — the team is coming off a pair of close victories over Cornell and Harvard.

But the Tigers remain unimpressive, lacking accuracy in front of the net — Princeton posts a .458 shots-on-goal percentage.

The Eli offense floundered early on in the season but has found stability in recent games and stands to give the Tigers a hard time. The Bulldogs have nine players who have scored at least one goal, and 10 of their 14 goals came after the disappointing performance in September.

“We’ve been our own worst enemy over the course of the year,” captain and goalkeeper Erik Geiger ’08 said. “If we can eliminate our mistakes and take advantage of our opportunities, we’ll be fine offensively. We can’t take things for granted around the box. I have confidence in our ability to score goals.”

The Eli defense has also seen improvement, as the back line has helped foil many of the 133 unsaved shots taken by opponents.

“We learned how to play with each other, and we’ve become much more cohesive as a unit,” defender Alex Guzinski ’09 said of the Bulldog defense. “We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season, when we gave unnecessary space to our opponents. We’ve learned from our mistakes.”

The Bulldogs have been plagued by problems in their past three losses. Against Brown, the Bulldogs were unable to possess the ball and were forced to play into their opponents’ hands, players said.

The squad relies on the style of movement in the midfield and crosses up the field to begin an offensive attack. When the team is unable to do so, it has little control over its own game, Afsahi said.

“We’ve tailored our game to what our opponents have presented us, and our success in a game is more a function of our own ability to get the ball down and switch the field,” he said. “As midfielders, our responsibility is to reemphasize our own style of play. It’s a pivot point for the rest of the team.”

Defeating Princeton and Harvard will be pivotal for the Elis if they want to end the season in the upper half of the conference standings and conclude the year over .500 in Ancient Eight play. But the team’s improvement this season is the mark of success for the still-developing team.

“Any game we’re obviously trying to win but we’re more concerned with improving on how we play,” Guzinski said. “We need to step up how we play and gain some confidence going into the offseason. You want to end the season on a high note. That’s what we’re going for here.”

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