“Keep the ball,” midfielder Jordan Raybould ’10 said.

Simple as that — keep the ball.

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The men’s soccer team needs to do whatever it can to get a win against last-place Columbia (3-8-1, 0-3 Ivy) this Saturday at 7 p.m. in Manhattan. Yale (2-6-4, 0-1-2) has not yet recorded a victory in conference play and has been faltering lately. The squad dropped its last two games to snap a six-game undefeated streak, during which they tied four times.

This weekend the Bulldogs will need to maintain possession of the ball, something they failed to do against No. 2 UConn on Wednesday, Raybould said. Control of the midfield has been key in past Eli victories and ties, but the Bulldogs have been kept on their toes defensively in recent contests and were unable to get the ball through the midfield.

Moving the ball forward, via crossing, has been the Elis’ friend — a long ball up field preceded three of their past four goals.

“Our offense is starting to score more goals,” Raybould said. “It’s starting to come into its own, and people are starting to make better decisions on the field.”

The Yale offense is beginning to make some strides, having scored five times in the past four games — the same total as in the first eight games of the season. With its stronger attack, the team may be able to penetrate a Columbia defense that has given up the most goals in the Ivy League (24).

While Lion netminder Michael Testa tops the conference in saves with 69, the Columbia back line has allowed 93 shots on goal.

But the Elis will have their work cut out for them on defense, as the Lions boast a solid offense and feature eight players with at least one goal on the season. The Bulldogs’ style of play mirrors that of most Ivy competitors, and the Elis will be prepared for Columbia on Saturday, defender Max Rhodes ’09 said.

“Most Ivy teams play similarly, so there won’t be any wild variations on the theme of hard work and direct play,” he said. “We know what to expect.”

The staunch defense, bolstered by the return of midfielder Alex Afsahi ’09, who was sidelined with a knee injury until Wednesday, has had three matches in which to gain experience playing Ancient Eight opponents. The four starting defenders are experts at getting in front of an attacking player — the Elis have given up just 13 goals this season, good enough for third in Ivy standings.

Nearly impenetrable captain and goalkeeper Erik Geiger ’08 complements the hard-working back line. The netminder is ranked 17th in the nation with 5.40 saves per game.

But players said that Ivy games are decided by which team fights the hardest, regardless of how they stack up against each other.

“In an Ivy game, what happened last week doesn’t apply,” Yale head coach Brian Tompkins said. “Every Ivy game is the Cup Final. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re not going down there to get anything other than a win.”

As they prepare to face yet another challenging opponent, the Elis’ progress over the course of the season is apparent. The large freshman class has made huge contributions on the field, scoring four of the Bulldogs’ 10 goals. Forward Aden Farina-Henry ’11 and Kevin Pope ’10 were selected to the Ivy League Honor Roll last week.

“We couldn’t ask much more of them in terms of effort,” Tompkins said. “Anytime you play quality opposition, it’s good experience especially for the young guys. [For them] this season is a baptism of fire.”