Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Dominant first half sees UMass beat Sacred Heart 4-0 in home opener

Evan Fournier leads the charge for the Minutemen with two goals
Shilpa Sweth/ Daily Collegian

When the halftime buzzer called an end to the first 45 minutes, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team had already done its damage, claiming a 4-0 victory in its home opener against Sacred Heart on Monday.

Everything went right for the Minutemen (1-0-1) in the first half — so much so that even after their form dropped-off in the second half, they were still able to clinch an emphatic win and the clean sheet.

“I’m very pleased,” head coach Fran O’Leary said. “Sacred Heart have some very good players and could’ve posed us problems … to be 4-0 up by halftime in any college game you know you’ve done well. We knew it’d be more difficult in the second half and it was. [I’m] very happy, a home win to kick off the season is great.”

A staple of the way this Minutemen squad plays is its high press. Pressing Sacred Heart (0-2-0) high in its own half caused trouble for the visitors in every area of the game. As a team with 11 freshmen and little composure to play from the back, the Pioneers suffered early in their buildup stages. They couldn’t establish any presence in the midfield and failed to even cross the halfway line consistently.

“When you press, if you do it as a group it’s hard to get out of; if you do it in ones and twos, teams will pick you off, a team like Sacred Heart could’ve picked us off,” O’Leary said. “But again, credit our guys, there was always someone backing up each other, when we started the press others came and joined in and I thought it was effective today.”

Furthermore, the press helped UMass recover possession of the ball in advantageous positions, with Sacred Heart’s defense left unorganized and unable to properly contain counters and runs in behind. With that, the Minutemen found ways to exert lots of early pressure over the Pioneers’ territory, eventually finding a goal from an unexpected position.

It came from the boots of Evan Fournier on the eighth minute, who took a free kick from so far away it seemed impossible to be a direct shot. However, Fournier caught Sacred Heart keeper Justin Siegel on an advanced position and tested him from near midfield, sending the ball over Siegel’s head and into the goal for an early lead.

Fournier was the architect of UMass’ barrage in the first half. The senior wide midfielder led the high press, organized the buildup and counterattack, looked for line-breaking passes and caused mayhem off set pieces.

“He’s been terrific!” O’Leary said of Fournier’s performance. “We took him out at halftime to give him a little rest, but he’s been fantastic. Since the first day of preseason, he’s taken a leadership role. He’s been very effective for us down the left, he’s added a level of physicality and aggression to his play that’s really helping him impact us and win a lot of possession in the midfield.”

In the 16th minute, Fournier did it again. From the exact same spot on the field, he sent another free kick towards the box and this time it went in with the help of Sacred Heart’s Koke Gracia Martinez, who accidentally flicked it into his own goal.

“I’m feeling good, I’m excited for the team,” Fournier said. “We came out really hot from the start which was a good thing, and we sort of were able to maintain in the second half, but there was definitely a lot of room for improvement and things to learn so I think that’s the most exciting thing for us.”

Disaster continued for the Pioneers when Nick Zielonka scored six minutes later off an Alec Hughes assist. Zielonka slid with the ball into the back of the net 14 seconds after subbing into the match, netting for the second time in as many games.

“It feels really great, you know, it’s been a lot of hard work that’s paying off and just listening to what coach [O’Leary] keeps telling me,” Zielonka said. “It was such a great feeling. I just saw [the ball] rolling a bit wide so I just slid in with everything and it was just kind of like a moment of relief and happiness.”

By the 23rd minute UMass already had three goals, along with a missed penalty from Alec Hughes. It looked like it was about to be a dauting evening for the Pioneers. Ten minutes later, more set piece damage ensued as freshman Sefunmi Taiwo made it 4-0 off a corner kick for his first collegiate goal.

The Minutemen outshot Sacred Heart 11-1 in the first half, but the script flipped completely after halftime.

In an impressive effort and taking advantage of heavy rotations in the home team, the Pioneers took full control of the game. They started off much stronger offensively with three corner kicks in a row and found ways to beat a high press that quickly lost intensity.

Sacred Heart improved their buildup play and controlled the middle of the field, getting to the opposing box with relative ease and outshooting the hosts 7-to-1 in the second half, but it was too little too late.

Both UMass goalkeepers, Matt Zambetti and Alex Geczy got on the field, and both had to make brilliant saves sending the ball off the woodwork to keep the clean sheet intact.

“They stepped up their play, became a little bit more direct,” O’Leary said. “We started losing a couple of individual battles, and then I thought we got a grip of it again as the game went on, but barring a couple very solid saves from our keepers, the rest of the time we felt the attempts on goal came from deeper areas and weren’t a major concern.”

Next, the Minutemen will host Boston College on Saturday, September 3rd. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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