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

UMass men’s soccer’s season ends in A-10 semifinals

Minutemen lose on the road to the Rams
Kalina Kornacki
Daily Collegian (2023)

A defeat to Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 conference tournament brought an end to the Massachusetts men’s soccer team’s season on Wednesday.

Michael Rojas opened the scoring for the Minutemen (7-6-6, 4-3-1 A-10) in the 11th minute with a stunner into the top right corner from nearly 30 yards out. VCU (7-5-5, 5-1-2 A-10) put heavy pressure on UMass from that point until the end of the half, scoring twice in the last four minutes of the period to knock the wind out of the Minutemen’s sails.

The Minutemen responded by taking over the second half but conceded a third goal in the 57th minute and couldn’t capitalize on their big chances. VCU outshot them 13-11 and 6-4 in shots on goal.

The loss concludes a strong season for UMass. The team consistently put up strong performances behind its solid structure and a clinical attacking duo up front, eventually upsetting the premier team in the conference in Saint Louis in the opening round of the tournament before falling to the Rams.

“Disappointed obviously with the result with how the season got to an end,” UMass head coach Fran O’Leary said, “but immensely proud of the group of players we have here. They never gave up against a very good No. 1 seed. We were pushing to the end. We were a goal up and looking quite comfortable and then gave two goals away right before halftime. A lot of teams would have folded then. I said I think we took the game to [VCU] … so, immensely proud of this group.”

“They can be very, very, very pleased and proud of the season they’ve put in for UMass. To be one of four teams left standing at the end of the season is a great credit to our players.”

The game started with back-and-forth changes of possession and both teams failing to establish continuous attacking sequences, but in a moment of brilliance Rojas sent a rocket past John Ermini early on. It looked like the Minutemen would hold on until the break, but an end-of-half disaster ensued for the visitors in Richmond.

After 30 minutes of trying, VCU equalized off a corner kick. Camilo Comi flicked on a header from the near post with no angle, but it hit UMass’ Andrew Ortiz and went into the back of the net in the 41st minute.

Then with 22 seconds left in the half, Andrey Salmeron put on a show with a banger of his own to take the lead. Salmeron made a deadly turn on the ball to beat his marker as he received a pass, finding himself in a pocket of space before shooting from distance with a terrific finish into the top right corner. Salmeron was a handful for the Minutemen all game long. “Sometimes you’ve got to hold your hands up and say you’re beaten by a little piece of magic, a little piece of quality,” O’Leary said.

But UMass played its best soccer after the break, hitting the crossbar twice and having a shot cleared off the line. Ryan Levay had an attempt from the center of the box deflected into the woodwork and Nick Zielonka’s free kick opportunity bounced off the bar on the top right corner.

“It’s a very good run for us and I think the mark this team will leave is one of real resilience,” O’Leary said. “Tonight, even when we came in at halftime, the resilience of a group of guys that, you know, to suffer two setbacks just before half time to come back and take the game to a very good team in the second half is really the mark I’ll take away from this group, a very resilient, mentally tough group.”

Yet despite holding off heavy pressure from the onset of the second half, the Rams all but put the game to rest when VCU captain William Hitchcock scored the third goal in the 57th after a chaotic sequence.

Salmeron was in on goal and beat goalkeeper Matt Zambetti with a dribble around the keeper but missed the open goal as his shot hit the post. It rebounded towards Jonathan Kanagwa, who took too long to get a shot off from inside the box and, despite also having an open goal, had his attempt smothered by UMass defenders who made a recovery run. A third chance with an open net fell to Hitchcock and he dealt with it, shushing the crowd in celebration.

“We had a couple of let downs on the goals and when you’re playing a really good team, they punish mistakes,” O’Leary said. “That’s what top teams do and VCU is a top team. So, we’ll go away and learn from it.”

One of the keys to the game for the Rams was to neutralize star striker Alec Hughes. The UMass senior came into the contest as the nation’s leader in goals with 15, and VCU defender Scott McLeod did as good of a job defending him as anyone this year. He limited the striker to two shots and one shot on goal on the night.

O’Leary credits Hughes and all the seniors, including Zielonka, Levay, Zambetti, captain Jack Englebert, Mike Willis and more for the Minutemen’s strong season. It’ll be another class tough to replace.

“I think tonight’s all about the group, particularly the seniors who’ve been absolutely amazing here,” O’Leary said. “Three of the four years they’ve been in postseason, two A-10 tournaments, one A-10 semifinal, one NCAA Tournament. They’ve had great careers and they’ll be sorely missed.”

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

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