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UMass men’s soccer survives Saint Louis, advances in A-10 tournament

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Survive and advance.

That’s all the Massachusetts men’s soccer team had to do on Sunday, squeaking out a 1-0 win at home over Saint Louis in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

In front of a big supporting crowd at Rudd Field, top-seeded UMass (13-3-3, 6-1-1 A-10) came under immense pressure from the eighth-seeded Billikens (7-9-1, 4-4-0 A-10) in the late stages, but the lead held and the Minutemen move on to the semifinals.

“Yeah, absolutely delighted, beating a very good Saint Louis team,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary, “they won the league last year. Thrilled to still be alive at this stage, it’s great.”

“It all came down to our grit, honestly,” said senior Matthew Mooney. “That was a tough game, that was always going to be a fight in the air too. They knew they wanted revenge on us from earlier [this season], so we knew they were going to tighten up from how they played last time. It was a battle, we just wanted it more.”

The lone goal of the contest came in the 31st minute, when senior Alex DeSantis whipped a corner kick into the box, where Connor O’Dwyer was left unmarked and free to head home his second goal of the season.

It was the only real chance UMass had on the day, as freshman forward Davis Smith was largely kept at bay, but it proved to be enough.

“They definitely focused on Davis,” Mooney said, “and that’s most of our attack, playing balls up to him and him winning them. They were really good in the back today, and that kind of inhibited our way of attacking, but we got the goal we needed.”

SLU controlled the midfield for much of the game, as the Minutemen found themselves on the back foot early and often. UMass, as always, defended as a unit and managed to absorb that pressure and keep chances from materializing.

“I thought it was a collective effort,” O’Leary said, “It always is, guys were throwing their bodies. Saint Louis is a very good team. They keep the ball, they put us under a lot of stress—they’re a very well coached team, they’re a very good team. We’re throwing our bodies in front of things, we were disciplined and we got back in with a sense of urgency. We had a little bit of luck. When you win one-nil in a knockout contest, you need a little bit of luck.”

It was a match contested mostly in the center of the pitch, with few major chances on either end. The Billikens were able to control most of the possession, as UMass struggled to keep the ball for long spells.

“Both sides were fighting for possession,” said O’Leary, “we at times were a little careless with the ball. You’re under a tremendous amount of strain. The key thing for us was we got a goal and we had to make sure we kept it. I thought our guys did a great job today.”

Saint Louis continued to push for a goal in the second half, launching an all-out assault to try and find an equalizer, but UMass kept its defensive shape and maintained the lead. O’Leary went ultra-defensive late, bringing on center back Ryan Saul in place of striker Samuel Asamoah in the final minutes, going to a five-man back line to try and seal the win.

Though Saint Louis was pushing, the offensive onslaught never produced much, as goalkeeper Bardia Asefnia was only forced to make three saves all afternoon.

“We stayed compact throughout the whole game,” said Mooney, “they couldn’t find any good chances, and that’s kind of what it came down to. We got the better chance.”

The game’s final moment of drama came off the pitch rather than off of it, as Billiken senior Patrick Starr kicked UMass junior Jack Fulton on the sideline in the 90th minute. Starr was immediately sent off, in his final collegiate game.

The extra-curriculars continued into postgame, as Starr approached the group of Minutemen and had to be restrained by coaches and teammates.

In the end, UMass hung on to its 1-0 lead, and will move on to the tournament semifinal to take on Fordham on Friday. The Rams handed UMass its only conference and home loss just last week, notching a 3-2 victory at Rudd Field.

“We’re definitely confident,” said Mooney, “we definitely have work to do this week, definitely going to tighten things up before we play Fordham again, and we’ll come out with a win hopefully.”

Kickoff on Friday is scheduled for 4:30 on Friday—the semifinals and finals of the tournament will be contested at Baujan Field at the University of Dayton.

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

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