by Pete Janny, Asst. Sports Editor
After opening the season with three straight losses, the Manhattan College men’s soccer team arrived in Hartford last Tuesday looking to pull off an upset against the University of Connecticut Huskies (3-4).
Despite the slow start to the season, the Jaspers have been far more competitive than their record suggests. This season is unlike previous seasons in that the non-conference schedule is remarkably tough. Having already played against quality programs in Lehigh, St. John’s, and Rutgers, Connecticut figured to be just as tough of a test.
Credit to Manhattan, they didn’t let the distraction of playing against a big name team from a big name conference get to them. With most of the players from last year’s 12-win team still on board, the Jaspers turned in a spirited performance against the Huskies in a game that was mostly dictated by the underdogs. But as the Jaspers were reminded of on Tuesday night, this sport can be cruel at times as playing the better brand of soccer doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. Manhattan’s inability to finish key chances on offense combined with Connecticut’s lethal counter-attacks ultimately doomed the visitors as Connecticut escaped with a 2-0 win.
Manhattan suffered a huge blow in the sixth minute when Connecticut senior Jorden Hall broke loose for a breakaway in which he ended up depositing a ball into the back of the net to give the Huskies an early 1-0 lead. The breakaway was made possible by a laser of a pass from defensive midfielder Djimon Johnson that allowed Hall to use his speed to elude the Manhattan defense. The play developed so quickly that it caught the spectators off guard just as much it did the Manhattan defense.
Despite being behind the eight ball early, Manhattan recovered nicely, proceeding to keep the Connecticut offense in check while building some offensive cohesion of their own.
Manhattan had two chances of their own shortly after Connecticut’s goal to introduce themselves to the Connecticut backline. The first chance came in the ninth minute when Brandon Joseph-Baudi decided to give the Connecticut goalkeeper an early test with a shot from far out that went just left of the target. Five minutes later, the Jaspers threatened again when a long throw-in from Tristan Doran led to a shot in the box off the foot of classmate Milan Devuyst. Unfortunately, the shot was a bit too strong and thus sailed over the target.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the field, Connecticut’s Dayonn Harris kept the Manhattan defense on their toes with multiple long-distanced shots. The first came in the 17th minute when Harris carved out some room for himself just outside the box before unleashing a shot that went way over the target. Eight minutes later, Harris tried his luck from the upper-right edge of the box, but the shot was caught by Manhattan goalkeeper Marcellin Gohier for his first save of the night.
The referees didn’t ingratiate themselves with the Manhattan players, nor any of the team’s fans in attendance, as there were a number of occasions in the first half in which the Jaspers felt the referees’ use of their whistles, or lack thereof, did wrong by them. The most controversial decision of them all may have been an offsides whistle in the 25th minute that thwarted a promising Manhattan attack in the middle of the Connecticut box.
The closing stages of the first half was all Manhattan as they began to methodically breakdown the Connecticut defense with some pretty passing sequences.
In the 42nd minute, an impressive Manhattan buildup in the box culminated with a hard shot from junior Mauritz Riegel at the top of the box that was blocked by a Connecticut player.
At the end of 45 minutes of play, the Jaspers and Huskies were tied in shots at five apiece with the Huskies clinging to a 1-0 lead. One could argue that Manhattan looked like the better side for much of the first half as most of the action transpired on Connecticut’s own side of the field. None of the mattered, however, because even though Manhattan showed flashes of offensive potential, their early-season scoring drought persisted.
Coming out the break, Manhattan picked up right where they left off with the offense continuing to give the Connecticut defense fits.
Junior Desmond Cole looked particularly sharp in the early stages of the second half as he repeatedly found ways to deliver dangerous crosses into the Connecticut box. Only four minutes in, Cole created a chance when he fired a ball from the left sideline into the heart of the box that almost found the head of a Manhattan player, but instead was punched to safety by the goalkeeper.
Despite looking like the better side in the second half as well, Manhattan still couldn’t get the monkey of not having scored all season off their back. In the 59th minute, Milan Devuyst tried taking matters into his own when he tried his luck from way outside the box, but his shot sailed well over of the target.
Just when it seemed inconceivable that Connecticut would have enough left in the tank to score, they did just that. After being outplayed for most of the night, the Huskies redeemed themselves in the 62nd minute when Cole Venner initiated a counter-attack in which he dribbled a good distance down the middle of the field before drilling a shot past Gohier to make the score 2-0.
It was a stunning turn of events in a game that was mostly controlled by Manhattan. The Jaspers had no reason to believe that Connecticut’s offense would muster another goal considering how much the Huskies struggled after Hall’s early goal. The bottom line is that even when good teams underperform, they still tend to take advantage of the opponent’s mistakes, which is exactly what the Huskies did to the Jaspers on both of the scoring plays. Manhattan’s 9-7 advantage in shots quickly became an afterthought as the Jaspers failed to show the same level of class in front of the net as Connecticut.
In his second season in Riverdale, junior Adrien Awana has followed up his excellent 2018 campaign with strong play out of the gate this season. The smooth and composed way in which Awana plays the role of center back is a big part of the reason why opposing offenses tend to have limited success against Manhattan. In a stretch that has confronted the Jaspers with talented offensive units, Awana’s calm presence and confidence in the back has been key in keeping the team competitive through all the losing. Despite the disappointing result against Connecticut, Awanea was impressed with the way the team played.
“It was honestly the best game we played so far this season.” Awana said. “We have kept playing better game after game since we started in August and that’s what keeps us confident and focused despite our record.”
By opting to play this many tough teams in the beginning of the season, Manhattan knew that their record was probably going to take a hit as a result. When weighing the pros and cons of doing it, head coach Jordan Scott believed there was much more to gain than to lose considering the fact that only the MAAC games determine which teams qualify for the conference tournament. Awana has also bought into that theory as he too is confident that the team will come out of this stretch a more well-rounded unit.
“It’s been really nice to go on the road and play on beautiful fields and to compete against challenging teams,” Awana said. “We know our schedule is designed to get us ready for the MAAC.”
As for the notable absence of goals, Awana is confident that the offense will begin to have more success in front of the net.
“We are working on it at every practice, and I’m very confident that the chemistry will end up operating up front and that we are going to be able to entertain the crowd with some nice goals,” Awana said.
Manhattan will conclude their non-conference schedule against Fordham when they travel to Rose Hill on Tuesday, September 24th for the annual tradition known as the “Battle of the Bronx.” Kick-off for that game is slated for 7 PM.
The Jaspers will then prepare for their MAAC opener against Monmouth on Wednesday, October 2nd at 7 PM. That game has added importance as it will be the first time in 2019 that Manhattan will play at Gaelic Park.