This year’s annual Yale Soccer Classic was just that. What started off as an eerie microcosm of the Elis’ early season ended in dramatic and triumphant fashion for the Bulldogs.
For the third straight game, Yale (1-0-3) could not hold onto a 1-0 lead and had to settle for a hard fought 1-1 double overtime tie, this time against Michigan State (2-1-3) Friday at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium. Finally, on Sunday, the Bulldogs exorcised their extra-period demons and broke through for their first win of the season, besting American (1-4-1), 3-2, in overtime.
Looking at the box score, it would be easy to equate Friday’s result with ties against Fairfield and Providence. But judging by the Bulldogs’ attitude after the game, their latest tie was nothing like the first two.
“We gutted this one out, I think we’re getting used to these 1-1 ties,” goalkeeper Erik Geiger ’08 joked. “Michigan State is a tough Big Ten team, and they deserve their billing. We’re slightly disappointed, but when you play against a team like this, you really learn a lot about yourself. To hang with one of the best teams in the country says a lot.”
The first half of the game was a defensive battle, as both backfields were able to contain their opponent’s offense and limit scoring chances. However, the second frame saw an immediate change in energy and tempo.
Just seven minutes into the half, captain Shannon Brooks ’06 put the Bulldogs on the board with a nifty shot into the lower left corner of the net. The savvy forward ran through the Spartan defense and received a perfect touch from forward Alex Munns ’07 – who was playing his first game back from injury — to setup the goal. But Michigan State wasted no time in retaliating. Two minutes later midfielder Ryan McMahen sent a beautifully looping direct kick right to forward Doug DeMartin in front of the Bulldog net for the equalizer.
The rest of the game, both teams had several chances to wrest the lead but neither could capitalize. In the 65th minute, Yale midfielder Gavin Blades ’09 broke free from the Spartan defenders deep in the MSU zone. But goalie Jason Tillman charged Blades and made a sliding save to preserve the tie.
Michigan State controlled the final minutes of regulation and the two overtime periods. The undermanned Bulldog defense — which was without star defender Jordan Rieger ’07 after he left in the first half with a hip pointer — found themselves mired in constant Spartan pressure. That is when Geiger put his stamp on the game. The maturing sophomore kept his composure amidst a relentless Spartan attack, making one great play after another and finishing with six saves. With little over 25 minutes left in the contest, Geiger dove to deflect a blazing shot out of bounds. The Bulldogs were unable to clear the ball, setting up a second opportunity for MSU, but Spartan forward Kenzo Webster was robbed by another diving stop from Geiger.
Geiger was quick to defer the credit to his gritty defense.
“I was just doing my job,” Geiger said. “There were at least 10 balls that didn’t even get to me because our guys threw their bodies in front of them. Everybody helped me out today.”
But as Yale head coach Brian Tompkins explained, the players should not be the only ones who should be getting the kudos.
“In all games we’ve been getting fantastic support,” Tompkins said. “It truly makes a world of difference to have this electric atmosphere. I guess my message to the fans is ‘Keep coming.'”
If Friday’s tie against the Spartans was a game of repeats, then Sunday’s battle against American was a game of firsts. It was the first time the Bulldogs trailed at any point in a game this season, the first multi-scoring effort by the Eli offense, the first time a game did not go to double overtime. And most importantly, Yale picked up their first win of the season to capture the Yale Classic – its first since 2001.
After falling behind 1-0 early, then taking a 2-1 lead at the half only to lose it midway through the second frame, the Bulldogs finally edged out the Eagles, 3-2, in overtime.
“There’s definitely a feeling of relief,” Brooks said. “There’s happiness too, not quite satisfaction because we didn’t play as well as we hoped. But it’s good to finally get the result we’re looking for.”
Unlike Friday night’s game, both offenses wasted little time in attacking the goal. American struck first 15 minutes into the game with a score by Garth Jukem. Although it was the first time the Bulldogs trailed all season, they showed no signs of panic. Literally seconds later, Jon Carlos ’09 found a streaking Munns, who headed the equalizer past Eagles goalie Chris Sedlack.
After the scoring spree, the defenses tightened up and the play got noticeably more physical. With one minute left in the half, the Bulldogs were able to capitalize on the roughness when forward Gage Hills ’07 was fouled in the box to earn a penalty kick. Hills calmly banged in the penalty shot to give the Bulldogs the 2-1 lead at the half.
Though the Bulldogs went into halftime with the momentum, the Eagles came out from the break energized and aggressive, and in the 60th minute, American’s Sal Caccavale tied the game.
The key play of the contest came with 26 minutes left in the game, when Hills again was fouled hard in the American box. The takedown earned Eagles defender Nathan Baker a red card, giving the Bulldogs a one-man advantage. But while Hills appeared to be fouled in the box, the referees did not award a second penalty kick. American was able to take advantage of the miscall and managed to keep possession despite being a man down. The crowd grew restless as the Bulldogs made error after error, failing to exploit the mismatch. When regulation ended, it was the Eagles who walked off the field confident and the Bulldogs left wondering if another golden opportunity to win a game had just passed them.
“We have a youthful team and sometimes youthful teams show inexperience under pressure,” Tompkins said. “Even though we were man-up, our inexperience showed. American is a good possession team and they quickly solved the problem of being a man-down.”
But the Bulldogs came back out onto the field recomposed, setting up a near scoring chance just a minute into overtime. Salvation finally came for the gutsy Bulldogs when forward Josh Block ’07 broke down the right sideline and kicked a perfect cross to Brooks, later named the tournament’s most valuable player, who headed it in for his second goal of the weekend. The Bulldog bench erupted and swarmed an ecstatic Brooks near the sideline.
“Our coach has always been harping on the strikers to make combination plays,” Block said. “I think Shannon and I finally got that play we needed. He hit me wide on the flank, I played a cross and he took it from there. He pretty much set up the play.”
It is only fitting that after three hard fought ties and another 95 minutes of play, the Bulldogs earned their first win of the season in thrilling overtime fashion off a brilliantly developed play.
“I guess you can say we finally got [what] we deserved,” Block said. “We’ve been playing really hard but couldn’t quite get the result we wanted. We’re still undefeated which just shows the character of our team. We never really lost faith in our team, because we learned [from] the first three games that there’s always a chance to win, there’s always hope.”
Tompkins, while knowing work still has to be done, could not be more happy for his team.
“At the end I asked them a rhetorical question: ‘We still have work to do right?'” Tompkins said. “But I believe we’re getting better. The spirit is excellent. I’m not sure what the psychological effect of a fourth tie would be. Certainly there’s joy and pride in any win at all, but to do it in this fashion is extra special.”
NOTES — In other tournament play, Dartmouth defeated American, 1-0, Friday and tied Michigan State, 2-2, Sunday. Yale and Dartmouth finished the tournament with the same record, but the Bulldogs won because of point differential.