For the first time in their past eight matches, the Yale women’s soccer team netted the game’s first goal. However, the Bulldogs proved unable to hold onto the lead as they conceded two late goals to drop a 2–1 heartbreaker to rival Harvard.

Fresh off a test against defending Ivy League champion Princeton, whom they battled to an even 1-1 draw, the Elis (4–3–3, 0–1–1 Ivy) drew another challenge on the road against Harvard (7–3–0, 2–0–0), the Ivy runner-up a year ago. After successfully containing Princeton’s two star attackers a week ago, Yale was challenged this week by Crimson forward Margaret Purce, the 2013 Ivy Player of the Year. Purce had previously netted four goals in three career matches against Yale, including plundering a hat trick in Harvard’s dominant 4–0 win last year. Even before Purce’s tenure, the Bulldogs had struggled against their Cambridge rivals, with their last triumph in this rivalry coming nearly a decade ago in a 2–1 overtime victory in 2007.

“[Purce would] be a very good player in any conference in the country,” head coach Rudy Meredith said. “She’s played for the national U-20 team. She’s got the speed, work ethic, attitude and determination … I’ve had nightmares these last few years about having to go against her, so I’m definitely glad we won’t have to play her again.”

Harvard started strong, peppering goalie Alyssa Fagel ’20 from long range. But despite the threat posed by the Crimson frontline, it was the Elis’ equally potent attack that provided the opening salvo seven minutes into the game.

Unsurprisingly, forward Aerial Chavarin ’20 provided the breakthrough, scoring her team-leading eighth goal of the season. A pinpoint delivery from defender Meg Byfield ’18 stranded Harvard keeper Lizzy Durack in no man’s land, and Chavarin flicked a deft header home to hand the Elis the lead.

“Meg played the ball over the top and I ran onto it,” Chavarin said. “The defender kicked the ball high in the air and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the keeper come off of her line a bit, leaving space for me to hit the ball over her.”

After grabbing the early lead, Yale retreated into its defensive shell and did not attempt another shot the rest of the half. Wave after wave of Crimson attacks crashed onto the Eli defense, but each foray was repelled by the Bulldog backline. Yale entered the locker room clinging onto a narrow 1–0 lead.

Harvard’s domination of the match continued once the teams returned to the pitch, but the Bulldog advantage stayed intact. The Crimson took six shots in the first six minutes of the period, forcing Fagel to make a series of saves. Yet as good as the goalie played, the overcautious Eli squad was unable to respond with pressure of its own: Yale managed just a single shot in the second half.

Running out of gas at the end, the defense finally buckled. In the 74th minute, Crimson defender Leah Mohammadi’s free kick found Purce, who smashed the ball into the back of the net.

“I think scoring first made us play a defensive game,” defender Carlin Hudson ’18 said. “All we were trying to do was to not let them score as opposed to trying to score ourselves. That was tough because they’re a [difficult] team to hold off for 85 minutes.”

Soon after, hopes of managing a draw were dashed as well. A corner kick in the 81st minute was headed past Fagel by Harvard midfielder Caroline Chagares. Up 2–1 with less than 10 minutes remaining, the Crimson did not look back.

With Saturday’s loss, the Bulldogs have moved into a precarious position in the Ivy League title chase. They stand in sixth place in the Ancient Eight, and with Harvard and Princeton both ranked ahead of them, they no longer control their own destiny.

However, there is reason for restrained optimism. Though Harvard and Princeton stand as the two clear favorites for the conference title, the Elis have now twice shown an ability to match that level of play. And with Chavarin’s early goal finally proving the Bulldogs can play well in the opening minutes, Yale could be on the verge of a significant leap forward.

“We know that we just played the two best teams [in the Ivy League], and we know we can compete with anyone else,” Meredith said. “We know we have a chance to win any game. Hopefully, we can carry a little bit of confidence going forward and compete for the title.”

Opportunities for victory abound in the coming weeks. Next, the Bulldogs will square off against Dartmouth and Cornell, both of whom stand at 0–2 in conference play. With wins in those matches, Yale would once again be in contention for its first Ivy title since 2005.

Both games over the next two weeks will be on the road. This is Yale’s longest time away from Reese Stadium since a five-game road trip in September 2015.