It took nearly two-and-a-half months, but the Massachusetts men’s soccer team finally settled into a long stretch of consistent play.
Unfortunately for UMass coach Sam Koch, it wasn’t exactly the kind of consistency the team was hoping for.
The Minutemen closed out their 2012 campaign in disappointing fashion this weekend, dropping a tough, 2-0 decision at Dayton on Friday before being embarrassed 5-0 two days later in the season finale at Xavier. UMass (5-11-2, 2-7 Atlantic 10) ends the season on a four-game losing streak, having previously been swept at home on Oct. 26 and 28.
“They were a better team than we were, bottom line,” Koch said. “We had some opportunities and, again, didn’t finish them.”
On a day when scoring chances for Koch’s squad were few and far between, a fast start by the Musketeers (13-1-4, 6-1-2 A-10) buried the reeling Minutemen almost before spectators could settle into their seats.
James Queree put Xavier, who entered the match with a conference-leading 41 goals scored, on top in the third minute with a one-timer in the top left of the net. A fluky pass from midfielder Andre Bezerra hit the crossbar, rolled several feet on the frame before dropping right in front of Queree for the easy chance.
Koch interpreted the bizarre chain of events as a warning signal for UMass, saying, “When that happens you just go, ‘Aww, man, I’m not sure this is our day.’”
Queree’s goal would be all that was needed to secure the victory, but Gino De Paoli tacked on another score just over two minutes later to add to the Musketeers’ blitz.
“They had two shots in the first five minutes and they both went in,” Koch said. “When that happens, it kind of puts you under the gun (and) we never really recovered.”
The pair would both find the back of the net once more — this time in reverse order — before the end of the first half, with De Paoli scoring his sixth goal in the 22nd minute and Queree netting his fourth on the season just over 10 minutes later.
The Minutemen came into Sunday’s closing act billed as the clear underdog, but Koch felt afterwards that he may have contributed to his team’s early struggles with some overblown mind games.
“(During) pregame, I’ll take some of the blame,” he said. “I might have given Xavier too much credit. Our guys played a little scared, and that’s my fault.
“We didn’t come after them like we normally do, so I’ll definitely take some of the blame.”
The same couldn’t be said for UMass’ start to the second half, but a Luke Spencer goal that extended the Musketeers’ lead to 5-0 just 53 seconds after the restart left the visiting team in frustratingly similar daze.
Recognizing the futility of his team’s predicament, Koch took the opportunity to play some of the team’s talented, yet woefully inexperienced underclassmen, a move he felt would pay dividends in the future.
Koch also made clear that the team’s mindset going into what amounted to a meaningless game in the standings wasn’t a problem.
“I think we wanted to play well and finish on a good note,” he said. “Our guys had the right mindset. There was no question that they came to play, we just didn’t execute.
“When you make mistakes against teams like (Xavier), they’ll punish you, and they did.”
Minutemen come up short in Dayton
For as disappointed as Koch was with the team’s performance in the finale against Xavier, he could not have been more proud of the effort his club displayed two nights before in UMass’ loss to Dayton.
“I thought we had a great game,” he said. “They are bigger, faster and stronger than we are, and we battled with them.”
The Flyers, (11-5-1, 5-3-1 A-10), too, struck first, this time on a blast off the left post past goalkeeper Brian Frame, but not before a long, back-and-forth effort from the Minutemen to preserve the scoreless deadlock into the 42nd minute.
“Their first goal, our defender slipped on the wet field,” Koch said. “So, it’s 1-0 and it should have been 0-0.”
UMass, which was outshot 23-11 in the match to continue a recent trend of offensive ineptitude, struggled to mount much of an attack on the Dayton defense.
Another Flyers goal off the foot of Evan McCreary in the 73rd minute extended the lead to 2-0, but it could’ve been worse for the Minutemen if not for an impressive save by Frame on a penalty kick.
Even though the loss eliminated UMass from postseason contention for the fourth year in a row, Koch expressed great pride in his team.
“I really felt on Friday we took a step forward,” he said. “Even though we didn’t get the result, we battled a team that’s better than we were. We made it really hard for them to beat us.”
Saying goodbye and looking forward
With the season concluded and a long, cold offseason staring them in the face, it is a time of reflection for the team.
Koch said after the loss to Xavier that he is especially disappointed the year had to end on such a sour note for the Minutemen’s four seniors, Frame and defender Dominic Skrajewski in particular.
(Frame) made a couple of great saves (on Sunday) and he’s had a great year,” he said. “He has been a real bright spot. For him to go out this way, I feel bad for the effort he put in.
“Dom is a two-year captain, and he played his heart out (Sunday). He was, visually, very upset at the end of the game because he put everything into it. I feel very bad for those two. I’m proud of both of them.”
But with so much of the team’s roster consisting of underclassmen, it is also a time to ponder the seemingly bright future of the team. Koch hopes the sting of Sunday’s crushing loss stays with the returning players.
“We’ve got to make sure that we get better every week of the offseason so this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “We’re a better team than this, but we didn’t show it.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Daniel Malone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.