Just two games into the 2016 campaign, the Yale men’s soccer team has already matched its win total from a season ago.
In a chippy contest on Saturday night, the Bulldogs (1–0–1, 0–0 Ivy) defeated Sacred Heart (1–3, 0–0 NEC) with a resounding 2–0 shutout, the team’s first clean sheet since 2014. The win avenges an Eli overtime defeat to the Pioneers last year and it appears the Bulldogs may be in store for a rebound season.
“[The win] felt great,” captain and center back Henry Flugstad-Clarke ’17 said. “We’re off to a good start this year, it’s always nice when results go your way and all your hard work is vindicated with a result. But now we’re getting ready for Quinnipiac on Wednesday and hopefully we can keep this momentum going.”
An intense 45 minutes of action kicked off the contest of in-state foes. The Bulldogs and Pioneers each came inches away from scoring goals, and forced their opposing goalies to make difficult saves. Despite the pressure from the two teams’ attacks, both goaltenders held their ground and prevented an early tally. Yale’s Kees Schipper ’19 saved three shots, while Sacred Heart’s Robert Strain saved four.
When both teams entered the locker room for the halftime break, the score remained 0–0.
Only two minutes into the second half, the mounting pressure broke the dam, as striker Kyle Kenagy ’19 beat his defender, entered the left side of the box and was pulled down as he sliced toward goal. Kenagy was awarded a penalty kick, which midfielder Nicky Downs ’19 took and sunk, as the goalie guessed wrong and could only watch as the ball glided into the opposite side of the net.
Less than a minute later, things went from bad to worse for Sacred Heart. The Pioneers’ forward Emir Celaj was shown a yellow card for a vicious tackle on a Yale defender. In frustration, Celaj yelled at the official, who immediately reached for a red card from his back pocket, ending Celaj’s night. The outburst forced Sacred Heart to play a man down, making any attempt at a comeback that much more difficult.
With one less player on the field, the game became noticeably more physical. Four yellow cards were handed out over the course of the next 23 minutes, three of which went to Yale players.
Head coach Kyle Stannard urged his team to stick to the same style of play despite the reduction in opposing players.
“My only message to the guys [after the red card] was to stay focused, composed and keep doing what we were doing,” said Stannard. “And we did that very well.”
The payoff came in the 70th minute, as Downs blocked a clearance attempt from a Sacred Heart defender, corralled the deflection and cut toward the goal. Winger John Leisman ’20 sprinted alongside Downs, with only one defender between the two.
“When I was running with the ball I kept looking up to see if the pass was on and as I got closer to the goal I was hoping to commit the defender which I eventually did,” said Downs, who made an unselfish play in setting up the freshman. “And then I just slotted it across, credit to John for keeping his composure and slotting it home.”
The goal was the first of Leisman’s career. From that point on, with Yale up two on the scoreboard and up a man on the field, the Elis coasted to their first victory of the season.
The Eli defense was impressive and limited the Pioneers to a mere three shots on goal. In fact, Schipper did not see a single shot on goal over the final 45 minutes. The referee, on the other hand, was far busier. In the second half alone he handed out six total cards, in addition to a yellow card he dealt in the first half.
The Bulldogs, coming off of two consecutive one-win seasons, are now 1–0–1 with a tie against Big Ten opponent Michigan and a win against a team that gave them problems just last year. The Elis stated heading into Saturday’s contest that they feel like a different team this year. So far, the Bulldogs’ results back up that assertion.
Yale plays next at Quinnipiac on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. The Elis’ sole victory in 2015 came against the Bobcats.