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UMass men’s soccer starts strong, wins opener against St. Francis

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts men’s soccer team got the season started on the right foot on Friday, topping St. Francis College 2-1 at home.

Facing a very tough Terrier side, the Minutemen found themselves attacking more often than not, and a fairly dominant performance showed in the final score line.

“I thought it was a terrific result,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary. “That was a very good team we played today. They were in the NCAA tournament last year, they’re one of the best defensive teams, best-coached teams, in the country. To come out and put 21 shots up against a team of this caliber is a credit to our guys, and should give them a lot of confidence moving forward.”

“It was a very good start to the season,” said senior Connor O’Dwyer. “We got the win, which is the most important thing, and we performed the way we hoped to perform.”

Junior Brandon Merklin and freshman Mike Rita were the goal scorers for the Minutemen. It was Rita’s first career goal for UMass.

The Minutemen were stifling on defense, holding St. Francis to just six shots on the afternoon.

“We defend from the front,” says O’Leary, “and collectively we defended very well. The back four were solid, up against some potent attackers.”

Merklin opened the scoring in 18th minute, finding space at the back post to head home a cross from senior Henry Steinkamp for his second career goal in UMass maroon.

The Terriers fired back just minutes later, as Faouzi Taleb was left unmarked on a corner kick to score a header of his own and level things at 1-1.

The Minutemen found the winner in the 55th minute, when senior Alex DeSantis lofted a cross to the back post for Rita, who hit a volley back across the keeper and into the side netting to score on his debut and put UMass ahead for good.

“It was a great goal,” Rita said, “and it was an awesome cross from Alex, all I had to do was tap it in.”

Down 2-1 and already on the back foot, things went from bad to worse in a hurry for St. Francis. Things became progressively chippier as the afternoon went on, and the Terriers were forced to play the final 15 minutes with just 10 men, after senior Collyns Laokandi saw a straight red card for a wild, two-footed challenge on DeSantis.

Eventually, the Minutemen were able to run out the clock on their first victory of the fall.

With that first win in the books, UMass sees a quick turnaround for its second game of the fall, as the Minutemen host Sacred Heart on Sunday.

“Try to get better, that’s all we can do,” O’Leary said. “I don’t know if we’ll win another game, but all we try and do is get better. We’ll be better with this experience today against a very fine St. Francis team, and now we’ll see if we can rebound and do it again on Sunday.”

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on Sunday at Rudd Field in Amherst.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

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