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

Regular season finale with massive implications turns sour for UMass men’s soccer

Minutemen had a chance to earn a top-2 seed in the conference tournament with a win
Kalina Kornacki
Daily Collegian (2023)

Few regular season games ever have as much on the line as the season finale did for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team against Dayton on Saturday.

Coming into the contest unbeaten in seven games, the Minutemen (7-5-5, 4-3-1 Atlantic 10) would’ve finished second in the A-10 and clinched homefield advantage in the conference tournament with a victory against the Flyers (6-6-5, 3-1-4 A-10) in Ohio –– but lost 3-1 and dropped to 7th in the standings. They’ll now play A-10 soccer powerhouse Saint Louis away from home in the first round of the playoffs.

The two teams in front of the Minutemen in the standings both lost, and the two teams behind them both won. Those outcomes meant the difference between a win and a loss would be monumental. Before finding out Virginia Commonwealth had won their game, UMass even had a chance to win the A-10 regular season title if they beat Dayton.

“Oh, [we’re] disappointed but it’s history now and we’ve got to move on and start planning to win a conference playoff game, and hopefully this time next Saturday we’ll be in the final four,” head coach Fran O’Leary said.

The collection of goals that the Flyers scored belongs in an award ceremony or a highlight reel. All three came from individual moments of brilliance, unstoppable strikes from outside the box that left the Minutemen with nothing to do but watch the shots go in.

After getting dominated in a scoreless first half, UMass started the second half well, but everything fell apart in the blink of an eye three minutes into the period. Dayton’s individual quality put it ahead with the first two goals from outside the area coming just 30 seconds apart.

In the 48th minute Sidike Jabateh, who outshot the Minutemen by himself in the first half, found space to get a shot off from way beyond the UMass box and curled it with his right foot straight into the top right corner.

Less than 30 seconds later, Kenji Mboma Dem took advantage of a bit of space on the edge of the box and controlled a pass with his right foot before quickly getting a shot off with his left, which he perfectly placed in the bottom right of the goal.

With 26 seconds left in the game, Mboma Dem scored the best of the bunch. He got the ball in space, took on the defender and created separation with an in-and-out move before curling a beauty straight into the top left corner, with the ball hitting the post just under the crossbar and going in.

“In the first half we didn’t commit to a press, we didn’t get pressure on the ball,” O’Leary said. “[Dayton is] a good team but we made them look a very good team. In the second half we tightened up but the damage was done. So for us, our guys, we all know it’s a disappointing performance. Structure is important to us. Our structure was off, our commitment to the press was off, and when that happens bad things tend to happen.”

One of the few bright spots of the night for UMass, star forward Alec Hughes scored his 14th goal of the season, tied for most in the country. Hughes got on the end of a blocked shot and calmly put it past the keeper from just inside the right edge of the six-yard box. His goal brought the Minutemen back into the game in minute 85.

Five minutes earlier, UMass forward Nick Zielonka had the best chance of the game in a one-on-one with Caetano after a cross from Michael Rojas went through the legs of a defender, leaving Zielonka squared with the keeper. Zielonka failed to capitalize, shooting it right at Caetano.

Despite the result, Minutemen keeper Matt Zambetti was the main reason UMass stayed in it for most of the game. In the first 15 minutes Dayton created some incredibly threatening chances on switches to the left wing and lived in dangerous areas.

Zambetti made three saves in those 15 minutes and finished with five saves in the first half alone. The Flyers outshot UMass 16-5 in the half, and while the visitors drastically improved their performance in the second half, the hosts still outshot them 24-9 in the game.

“[Zambetti] had a very strong performance for us in goal, did a terrific job,” O’Leary said. “[The goals had] nothing to do with [Zambetti]. They were terrific strikes, in another day they all won’t go in. But I think we’ve got to look at how did they get into positions outside our box to get uncontested shots. Normally it’s a strength of ours to get pressure on the ball and tonight we were a step off and it was reflected in the result.”

It was a missed opportunity for the Minutemen, but the better team won on Saturday and the season isn’t over yet. The A-10 has been wildly unpredictable all season. UMass will face the Billikens on Friday, Nov. 3 at Saint Louis, Missouri in the first round of the conference tournament.

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

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