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Strong defense leads UMass men’s soccer over Saint Louis

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

On a cold, rainy day at Rudd Field, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team relied on its stout defense to keep it in the game. The unit didn’t allow a goal, leading the Minutemen to a 1-0 victory over Saint Louis in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

UMass (13-3-3, 6-1-1 A-10) isn’t used to relying on its defense, as it entered the tournament leading the conference in scoring. The Minutemen needed to defend for a full 90 minutes to get the victory on Sunday, as they were under attack for the majority of the contest.

After Connor O’Dwyer got the Minutemen on the board in the 31st minute, Saint Louis (7-9-1, 4-4-0 A-10) turned the pressure up on offense. The Billikens were able to get a total of 12 shots on UMass, but the numbers don’t tell the true tale, as they were able to control possession for the majority of the second half.

Minutemen goalkeeper Bardia Asefnia earned his sixth shutout of the year. The redshirt senior was only forced to make three saves on the day, as the UMass defense was able to block multiple shots before the ball got to him.

“It’s legitimately a team effort, from front to back,” Asefnia said. “We’re organized, you can see the defense always talking to each other, midfield talking to the defense, and forwards talking to the midfielders, it goes straight down the line Just constant communication from the back to the front, and that’s what keeps us going. We tell each other to switch on every play, we don’t take one play off.”

With 20 minutes left on the clock, Saint Louis pushed its team up, putting all available bodies into the Minutemen end in an attempt to save their season with a late goal. The attack was so strong that UMass coach Fran O’Leary was forced to take out forward Samuel Asamoah and replace him with defender Ryan Saul to add another defender in the box.

While the goal never came, the Billikens were able to generate multiple chances. Ultimately, the UMass defense was able to step up and make stops when they were most needed.

“It’s not a lot of fun,” O’Leary said. “A wise coach once said ‘Winning is fun, it’s not always fun winning.’ The process isn’t always fun. There was nobody with five minutes to go saying let’s play another 20 minutes. It was just hanging on and trying to get another result. Tight games against really good teams if you get something it makes it all the sweeter.”

Even with the pressure, Asefnia knew if his team did their jobs and played to their capabilities, they could come out victorious.

“Start of the second half you just don’t know what’s about to come at you,” Asefnia said. “We’re a really good second half team, but it could be better. We just kept telling each other in the huddle right before, it is what it is, we’ve got 45 minutes. We’ve come this far, we’ve worked this hard, we’ve got nothing to lose, we just got to keep going.”

The win comes just days after the Minutemen dropped their first game at Rudd Field, falling to Fordham 3-2. The three goals were the most UMass had given up since an early season game against New Hampshire.

“Every game coach says it’s history now, put this one behind us,” defender Brandon Merklin said. “We weren’t even thinking about that.”

The Minutemen will look to carry the confidence gained today into Friday’s semifinal rematch with those same Fordham Rams. Asefnia feels that Sunday’s win will give UMass its confidence back on the defensive side.

“Unimaginable confidence, it’s seriously a great feeling,” Asefnia said. “That’s a great Saint Louis team with a lot of history, so it’s absolutely unreal to get a shutout in general, and against a team like that.”

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on twitter @TJ__Johnston.

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