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Clock runs out on UMass men’s soccer’s dream season in NCAA opener

 

In the end, the magic ran out.

The Massachusetts men’s soccer team’s dream season came to an end on Thursday, as the Minutemen took a disappointing first-round exit from the NCAA tournament with a 2-0 loss to Colgate.

UMass (15-4-3, 6-1-1 Atlantic 10) never recovered from two early Colgate (11-10-1,) goals, as the Raiders locked down defensively and sealed an upset win on the road.

“I want to congratulate UMass on a fantastic season,” said Colgate coach Erik Ronning. “Fran [O’Leary] has done a phenomenal job, they’re all class, and they’re a great team. When you get to this point in the season it comes down to making a play, and we were a little fortunate to make two and get a little breathing room, but the second half definitely had us at the edge of our seats at a coaching staff.”

The Raiders got off to a flying start in the opening minutes, as Jared Stroud’s scorching left-footed effort careened off the post and came straight to Karl Brown, who had an empty net to bury the rebound and give the visitors a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.

The Minutemen were a bit unfortunate to go down 2-0 just before the half. Stroud carried the ball into the penalty area from the right side and put a low shot on goal that clipped UMass junior Brandon Merklin’s leg, and a far-post shot became a near-post deflection. It was too late for goalkeeper Bardia Asefnia, already down and to his right, to make an adjustment, and the ball skipped past him to double the Colgate advantage.

After the second goal, it was clear that it just wasn’t UMass’ day.

“We talk about the importance of a yard,” said UMass coach Fran O’Leary. “We were a yard off them all day, so part of the reason we made little adjustments was to counter the fact that, for whatever reason, we were a yard off them. They were playing around us, which is unusual for our team because most of our success is born off of pressing the other team, but the second goal going on obviously answers the psyche of the team because you feel you’ve got a big, big mountain to climb in the second half.”

The Minutemen tried to claw their way back in the second half, but they never got anything going offensively, never truly tested Raiders goalkeeper Jacob Harris. It was a stark contrast from the two teams’ first meeting in September, when UMass put two goals past Colgate en route to a 2-1 victory.

“We’re up against very good defenders,” O’Leary said, “it’s just one of those days. I think we started off okay, I think the goal they scored set us back a little bit. This is a new experience for this group, being in the NCAA tournament, and we kept going at it but they defended very well, you’ve got to give Colgate’s back four a lot of credit.”

O’Leary threw everyone forward, as UMass tried desperately to find a spark in the attack third, but the spark never came. When the final whistle blew, the Minutemen had been shut out on their home field and sent packing in the opening round. It was a bitter end to what had been a magical season.

“Congratulations to Colgate, they were terrific today,” said O’Leary. “They were worth the win. But I’d just like to congratulate our guys on putting together a magnificent season. To kick off the season to think we’d end it in the NCAA tournament was a pipe dream, and to have two trophies, the league and the tournament, our guys were magnificent.”

The Raiders were simply a better team than the version that came to Rudd Field on Sept. 19, with a new system and new tactics that gave UMass fits this time around. Colgate had been on a hot streak, winning its last five games and a Patriot League tournament title, and that momentum continued.

“We’ve been getting better and growing within our system over the course of the last six or seven games,” Ronning said. “A lot of the same personnel were out there—about halfway through the season we changed the system we were playing, so that was one thing that was different, but the personnel remained the same, the way we wanted to play remained the same.”

In the post-game huddle, as his players comforted each other, O’Leary expressed nothing but pride for what his side had accomplished this fall.

“We just said there’s no need for tears,” O’Leary said. “We’ve all had the time of our lives over the last three months thanks to these guys.”

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

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