The UB Men's Soccer team has scored just two goals over the last two games - 200 minutes of game play. Despite only earning one point from Friday evening's tie from these two games, the young team that frequently starts eight or nine underclassmen is playing its best soccer of the year.
Following the Bulls' remarkable, two-goals-in-six-minutes comeback against Western Michigan, Head Coach Stu Riddle was ebullient in his praise: "I thought tonight's performance was incredible. It was hands down the best performance a team of mine has put together in my 18 months here at UB."
Because there are only six men's soccer teams in the MAC, each team plays each other just once and the schedule is an extremely abbreviated five games. Unlike other sports, UB will continue to play nonconference opponents throughout the season despite starting conference play.
Coming into today's game, Riddle pronounced that he was less concerned with the quantitative than the qualitative; win, lose, or draw, ninety minutes of focused, responsible play would mean far more than the numbers on the board. Additionally, freshman forward Abdulla Al-Kalisy sat out tonight to rest a nagging injury, allowing Steven Stryker more time than he has gotten all year.
While I think all of UB's forwards are excellent, I've been looking for Stryker to get more time for a while now, and he showed quickly that he was worth the nod, generating an early shot down the sideline after some very pretty midfield passing. early chance down the sideline. And it wasn't just Stryker; Lafayette goalkeeper Brad Seeber was making his first career appearance for the Leopards and was under barrage early, making an excellent save on Marcus Hanson at 6', only to make two more by the time the match was just eleven minutes old.
UB continued to generate strong offensive pressure, but suffered for quality scoring passes. I've made note of the disparity in shooting percentage between the Bulls and their opponents: UB gets a ton of shots, but whether due to bad luck or other factors, gets very few of them past the goalie. Today, despite the early barrage and control of the pace, I was looking for the Bulls to take many, many more shots. It may take more than one hand to count the number of times a ball around the top of the box was passed around until UB lost possession rather than just shooting it in and seeing what happens.
UB continued to generate pressure, with their best chance coming later in the first half, when Sean Young carried the ball up the middle for 30+ yards into the box, before slipping it to Cicerone, who was unable to chip it over the goalie. I wonder if Young couldn't have taken a shot himself, but it was a remarkable chance nonetheless. In the meantime, senior goalkeeper Waleed Cassis was tested for the first two times midway through the half. In the 26th minute he anticipated a long, hard shot well to make a tough save look easy, and then a few minutes later punched away a cross before UB's defense cleared it away.
Without a doubt, the rearmost defenders for the Bulls were the stars of the night. They're a young group, and I onder if some of the rough goalie stats are a product of unstoppable shots. But tonight you never would have guessed. If you remember D3: The Mighty Ducks, the Ducks learn to swarm loose pucks in front of their own net, to 'clear out the trash." That was UB's defense today. It wasn't always pretty, but the Bulls gave Lafayette no space to operate. Alec Fisher and Daniel Cramarossa were particularly effective.
In addition to swarming loose balls and capitalizing on bad touches, UB played with a physicality that I haven't seen from them all year. Given the way Lafayette came out of the break, it was more than necessary. Buffalo once held a 5-1 advantage in shots, but by the 55th minute the home team had flipped the tables to a 9-8 ratio.
The Bulls were able to respond and the game was largely even for a long stretch. UB generated a couple of chances that skittered just wide with about 15 minutes to play, but could not recapture the momentum of the first half. When the Cassis made an absolutely spectacular save in the 86th minute, it was his seventh of the game, few of them easy, and he and Seeber had at that point combined for 15.
It looked like the teams, evenly matched in a hard-fought game, were on their way to overtime. UB had gotten this far with spurts of offensive drive and others of defensive physicality, but never went without both. Unfortunately, Lafayette found a bit of home-field luck very late, and the ball popped out of a penalty-area scrum and past Cassis in the final minute.
If Buffalo didn't have two goals in the 90th minute themselves this season, I would be more shocked, but these are things that happen. UB is heading home tonight without a win, but should also be traveling with the confidence that comes with knowing they are playing their best soccer of the season.
This game means little except in the season win/loss record, and anyone paying attention to the program can see that the product on the field is improving rapidly. I am of full belief that the team that played tonight would have had an easy going in the Canisius game weeks ago. On that night, the Griffs took advantage of disorganized passing and outmuscled the Bulls, but tonight it was UB putting their stamp on the game.
The Bulls' next game will see them return to MAC competition and travel to northwest Ohio for a match against Bowling Green. The Falcons sit at 9-3 overall and boast the conference's top score in Pat Flynn.