It would have been difficult to script a more perfect microcosm of the Massachusetts men’s soccer team’s up-and-down fortunes this season than what played out on Rudd Field this weekend.
In defeating Saint Joseph’s 2-0 on Friday and then dropping Sunday’s match with Temple by the same margin, the Minutemen (4-6-2, 1-2 Atlantic 10) showed no signs of getting off the roller coaster ride that has plagued the team’s efforts this season.
“Our objective is to improve each week,” UMass coach Sam Koch said after Sunday’s loss. “And we took a step back today. We didn’t do some of the things that we needed to do to make us a better team.”
Fresh off Friday’s victory, the Minutemen fought toe-to-toe for much of the first half with the talented Owl team (7-4-2, 3-0-1 A-10) that ranks second in the Atlantic 10 Conference standings. But as is often the case with young teams, the UMass players began pressing for results after a 51st minute goal from Temple midfielder Cody Calafiore broke the ice and swung the momentum heavily in favor of the visitors.
“I think when they scored it definitely changed the game,” Koch said. “We lost our focus. I think if we had scored first it would have been different, but obviously it didn’t happen.
“It’s one of the things where you have a young group that, when things don’t necessarily go your way, sometimes it’s hard to keep your focus. I think that was one of the problems that we had today.”
Koch likened the deflating effect of Temple’s first goal to that of a balloon being popped, saying, “You just have to patch the balloon and start pumping air back in.”
As the gray skies and rain that had soaked the field earlier in the day slowly cleared, the Minutemen’s chances for victory grew more clouded. Mounting frustrations for UMass in the second half resulted in a pair of yellow cards issued against the team and continued deterioration of play.
With just over 10 minutes left in regulation, Temple midfielder Homero Rodriguez juked Minutemen goalkeeper Brian Frame to his left to free up an easy goal on the far post that sealed the Owl victory with an exclamation mark.
Frame, who came into the match expecting a blizzard of attempts from the A-10’s leading team in shots taken, recognized that his team’s pressing could lead to problems.
“We were pressing high because we wanted to get a goal back,” Frame said of the play. “(We were) men down, (and) midfield was out of position. We were just numbers down in the back, and the kid took a good finish.”
UMass’ further struggles in picking up attacking opponents at the halfway line that lead to Temple’s second goal on Sunday is indicative of the work still left for the inexperienced team.
“We need to work harder than we did,” Koch said. “Again, winning the midfield. We didn’t win the midfield today. You have to win the midfield.”
While the loss makes the Minutemen’s path to the A-10 tournament in November that much more difficult, Frame is still pleased with what he saw from the team on Sunday.
“A lot of positives,” he said. “I know, obviously, the score doesn’t reflect that, but I think we had a lot of good chances. I don’t think they outplayed us for long stretches of the game.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
That might be all UMass can hope for right now.
Minutemen take down Saint Joseph’s on Friday to earn first conference victory
The struggles that derailed UMass in the second game of its weekend home stand were made all the more difficult to swallow because of the relative ease with which the team handled its Friday victory over Saint Joseph’s.
The Minutemen waded through an early back-and-forth affair with the visiting Hawks (5-8, 1-3 A-10) before forward Josh Schwartz was able to break free off a short touch pass from midfielder Brett Canepa in the 28th minute and drive home the go-ahead score from about 25 yards out. The goal, which gave UMass its first lead since Sept. 22, was Schwartz’s team-leading fourth of the season.
The Minutemen wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to extend the lead.
Just over nine minutes after Schwartz’s boot, Will Ellis found fellow midfielder Jake Alvaro on a crossing pass in front of the net for a quick one-timer to double the team’s lead. Alvaro’s scoring effort, which was the first of his UMass career, came as a nice rebound following a botched corner kick.
The play of Alvaro and Ellis, both freshmen, continued an important, season-long trend for the Minutemen: flashes of veteran-like play from the team’s inexperienced youth.
And Koch has taken notice of Alvaro and his rookie brethren.
“(Jake has) done a great job for us all year so far,” Koch said. “He’s one of many freshmen that have really contributed.
“When we go to the freshmen there’s not any drop in our performance. (I’m) very pleased with how that whole class has performed so far.”
With the lead safely in hand, second half play for UMass morphed into a defensive game of keep away that spoiled attack after attack from the Saint Joseph’s offense.
Frame wasn’t heavily tested by the Hawks in the match, who were outshot by the Minutemen 14-10, but took care of business when necessary. Frame collected three saves on the day, including an impressive diving stop at the post in the 17th minute, en route to his fourth shutout performance of the year.
“It was a must win,” Koch said. “We had to get a result today. I thought the guys played really well. They came up big when they needed to.”
With several upcoming away matches that Koch described as “really difficult” the Minutemen recognize that the weekend’s results won’t define the team’s season.
“It’s a disappointment,” he said of the two-game split. “But how do we react? “How do we bounce back? That’s what we’ll find out.”
UMass will face the first of those important road matchups when the team travels south this upcoming weekend for matches with Charlotte and George Washington.
Daniel Malone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.